Dare we mention the n-word?

Nuclear power has been off the agenda in Australia since the 1970s. It’s time to reconsider it. [5 November 2013 | Peter Boyer]

A 1000mW nuclear power plant under construction in Haiyang, Shandong Province, China, due to begin commercial operations in 2014. PHOTO CHINA NEWS

I was born in the shadow of the bomb, a year after the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were shattered by nuclear blasts that changed the way we think about war and its weapons.

We came to call it “the bomb” because its explosive power put it in a class of its own, a power which kept growing, exponentially. In 1954, in the hapless Marshall Islands, the US detonated a hydrogen device over 800 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The Soviet Union, which conducted its first successful atomic test in 1949, eventually tested a hydrogen bomb yielding over 3000 times the energy that flattened Hiroshima.

Britain joined the club in 1952, France in 1960 and China in 1964, followed by India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and, for a while, South Africa. As the weaponry spread, a profound sense of foreboding grew around the world. The bleak nuclear end-game described in Neville Shute’s 1957 novel, On the Beach, was displaced in the 1980s by the even darker scenario of death by starvation in a post-apocalyptic “nuclear winter”.

This technology of war also produced electricity. By the late 1970s the world had 250 operating nuclear power stations, but two events in March 1979 delivered the industry a huge setback. Opening in US cinemas on March 16, 1979, The China Syndrome was about an imagined accident at a Los Angeles nuclear power plant. The swift riposte from the nuclear industry that the movie was “sheer fiction” turned out to be a publicity disaster of the first order. Twelve days later, a reactor at a nuclear power station on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River suffered a partial meltdown. It wasn’t the first such incident, but it got unprecedented media attention. Public confidence was shattered, and repercussions for the nuclear industry were powerful and enduring.

Three Mile Island killed no-one and did no lasting damage, but seven years later, a meltdown in a Soviet nuclear plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, had far greater consequences, leading to fallout of radioactive particles as far afield as Scandinavia and Britain. The number of deaths attributed to Chernobyl range from the official Soviet figure of 31, believed to be much too low, to almost a million, probably a wild exaggeration. Between 60 and 250 is the most widely-acknowledged count. There were other health impacts, but these can’t be accurately quantified.

Then in 2011, a tsunami in Japan that killed nearly 16,000 people also damaged a nuclear plant at Fukushima, on the coast north of Tokyo, leading to a partial meltdown. The event was as severe as Chernobyl, but because of a safer reactor design no fatalities have yet been attributed directly to the accident, although as in the case of Chernobyl there are almost certain to be widespread health effects from fallout. Fukushima has proven to be another huge setback to the industry.

Now a new player in the nuclear debate, the just-released US documentary film Pandora’s Promise, tells us that nuclear power is a safer energy source than coal, oil, gas and even solar. Once I would have strongly disputed this. Like millions of others I accepted The China Syndrome’s premise that human fallibility made nuclear an inherently unsafe source of energy. In the early 1980s I put a sticker on the back of my car telling Australia to go “solar, not nuclear”, on which someone who knew more than I did scrawled a handwritten response, “burn coal, pollute the Earth”. The same “solar, not nuclear” slogan turned up 30 years later, in Pandora’s Promise. As the film reports, that slogan was used in the 1980s to shut down a nuclear power station on Long Island, New York State, in an advertising campaign financially supported by, you guessed it, coal and oil interests. Nuclear was a threat to their business, whereas solar wasn’t — at least, not then.

In 2007, a retired physicist in a seniors group I was addressing put it to me that nuclear was far less hazardous than coal and oil, and that it should be on the table as a carbon-free energy source. I responded negatively, saying that solar and wind could do the job if given enough support. But he got me thinking. I continued to argue that health and waste concerns around nuclear, its capital cost and its potential to be diverted to weapons production added up to a net negative, but I came to include in my presentation the concession that nuclear could offer some benefits.

My anti-nuclear conviction has started to slip with the passing years. Our energy demands have stayed stubbornly high, while business and government, thirsty for export dollars, are in lock step to exploit to the limit Australia’s massive coal and gas reserves — exactly the opposite of what we need. Right now we’re losing the emissions battle. On our current trajectory, all modelling says that by 2100 Earth will warm by 3C or more. The likely outcome will be a climate so unstable that the civil society we know today will break down. Against this, nuclear accidents pale into insignificance. With wind and solar, nuclear is capable of fully replacing coal, oil and gas as an energy source, offering a glimmer of hope to get us off our current perilous course. Australia’s abundant uranium reserves can supply domestic needs while at least partly replacing coal as an export commodity.

I’m not putting this proposition lightly. I’m aware of the powerful pull of the anti-nuclear position, given all that’s happened over the years. I’m also aware that Labor and the Greens, the parties that have put the most effort into climate policy, remain firmly against domestic nuclear power. It must also be said that no technology – nuclear, wind, solar or any other – is a panacea for our energy problems, or a simple replacement for fossil fuels. There are still questions to be answered about nuclear energy, and answers will not come any time soon.

But these desperate times call for open minds. We have to put nuclear back on the table.

Pandora’s Promise will be screened next Sunday as part of Launceston’s Breath of Fresh Air film festival, from 9:30 am at the Annexe Theatre, Invermay Road. It will be followed by an audience discussion with a panel including Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson.

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1 Response to Dare we mention the n-word?

  1. Robert LePage says:

    Considering the ongoing emergency at Fukushima that could devastate most of the world and the fact that the west coast of Canada and the US is now being contaminated, I m surprised that you should bring this up.
    I fully expect Abbot and the coalition to start a push for it, Howard would have if he had not lost that election.
    The only good thing to say for nuclear power here in Australia is that we are going to go down the tube with AGW and peak oil any way so Nuclear will maybe finish us off sooner and get it over and done with.

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