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Nuclear boosters now in meltdown

22 Mar 2011

First published on The Drum: 22/03/2011

Beyond its gob-smacking human tragedy and the looming economic catastrophe, the Japanese tsunami has thrown a radioactive wildcard into the global debate over climate change.

The fallout from the meltdown of Japanese nuclear reactors will undermine the until-now successful attempts by the nuclear industry to reposition itself as part of the global warming solution.

As this week’s Essential Report shows, the public had been coming around to the idea that developing nuclear power in Australia was acceptable. This has changed dramatically over the past seven days with one quarter of all Australians changing their position.

Q. Do you support or oppose Australia developing nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity?

27 Jan 09 20 Dec 10 Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Total support 43% 43% 35% 29% 46% 18%
Total oppose 35% 37% 53% 58% 43% 78%
Strongly support 14% 16% 12% 10% 17% 7%
Support 29% 27% 23% 19% 29% 11%
Oppose 21% 21% 21% 23% 22% 15%
Strongly oppose 14% 16% 32% 35% 21% 63%
Don’t know 22% 19% 13% 13% 11% 5%

If I am honest with myself I was one of the ‘Don’t Knows’ before the recent disaster.

This is a big admission by someone who was politicised by the global anti-nuclear movement in the ’80s and was in the middle of the protests when nuclear powered warships came to town and when Hawke allowed nuclear mining at Jabiluka.

I attended workshops by CIA whistleblowers and the emissaries of various revolutionary causes, sensing that while I really didn’t get the geo-politics, the idea of blowing people up with nuclear weapons that then poison everyone else seemed pretty dumb. In fact, it felt like my moral duty to put on the No Nukes T-shirt.

But then the Cold War ended and stockpiles between the USA and USSR were slowly, but not anything like completely, reduced. Meanwhile, more nations developed nuclear weapons, the exclusive club of five nearly doubled as India, then Pakistan North Korea and most likely Israel, for various reasons of security and/or delusion, entered the ultimate end game. And we didn’t really notice. The world seemed more stable.

Meanwhile, the nuclear industry was remaking itself, not as purveyor of bombs, but of clean energy. In countries like France, Germany and the US, nuclear power was seen as a viable economic option, if you didn’t count the government investment in building the infrastructure and the public risk of having no long-term waste management plan.

When things went wrong we were told not to panic; Three Mile Island was a hiccup, Chernobyl just proof that the Communists could never run the world.

And then as the warnings from the climate scientists become more strident, I was prepared to ask myself the question: if the world is really on a collision course with its own destiny, shouldn’t I look at an energy source that doesn’t contribute to CO2 emissions with fresh eyes?

I wasn’t over the line on nuclear, but I was giving it a fresh look.

But all that open-mindedness has now been shut down, along with the reactors.

I have heard all the arguments from the industry in recent days, this was an earthquake zone, they were older generators, this could never happen elsewhere.

But where I’m lost is that this energy source is just so dangerous; the safety is so tight because the material is so unstable. If systems break down radiation can poison everyone; and there is still no long-term plan to manage the industry’s waste.

As we recognise the immensity in the challenge of addressing climate change, we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked into thinking there is a quick fix, a cheap option.

We mistake carbon for dirty, allowing nuclear to become clean. But a process that emits radioactive waste can never call itself clean.

And I’m told that powering the earth with the sun, the waves and the winds may all sound good but we can’t afford to develop these industries. And I can only ask myself: how can we not?

– Peter Lewis: Director, EMC