Peter Dutton’s high-risk nuclear gambit

How does this work? The Coalition lost the 2022 election in large part because its decades-old climate policy of pretence, denial and delay hit a wall. Now it’s heading for another poll promising more of the same while it experiments with nuclear energy.

This makes no sense without one key factor. Certain influential people in the Coalition – mainly but not entirely in the Nationals part of it – have always believed that the science of greenhouse warming is at best wrong and at worst a cult, or a conspiracy to make us all poor. 

Barnaby Joyce MP and Senator Matt Canavan are leading examplars but far from alone. While pretending to remain committed to a net-zero 2050 target their leader, Peter Dutton, has now placed their climate denialism on centre stage for all to see.

These people have never taken seriously what the entire gamut of relevant sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, you name it – has been saying for decades with increasing unanimity. That is, that human carbon emissions are causing the climate to get warmer and wilder, that the threat is mounting rapidly, and that the only solution is for rich nations to eliminate carbon from their energy mix, quickly.

As if it’s just gossip or a scary fairy tale, Peter Dutton has let all this wash over him. In offering nuclear as an alternative to Labor’s all-out solar and wind rollout he’s kicking the can down the road for short term gain, counting on the near-term pain of rising living costs eclipsing all other concerns until after the next election.

The rise of populism in this month’s European elections suggests this tactic might work for him, just as it might work for Donald Trump in November’s US presidential elections. That bleak scenario would see climate action gone from the US agenda and the prospect of the same happening here.

The 2022 election promised to be a turning-point for fossil fuel fortunes. But coal and gas, supported as exports by the Albanese government, will both be buoyed by a Coalition energy manifesto requiring that old power stations keep going until nuclear is ready to plug into their transmission lines.

Last year I wrote that while Australia was right to focus on wind and solar, nuclear energy could not be ruled out long-term. CSIRO’s GenCost report last month advised that as the technology now stands nuclear power would be as much as twice the cost of wind and solar with batteries (a lot more if we go for much-touted small modular reactors or SMRs), and that the first reactor could not be up and running before 2040.

A current commercial move to extend operation of a Hunter Valley coal mine to 2050 has been described by the NSW Environment Protection Authority as the state’s “largest coal mining proposal ever”. The coal is intended for export, but a guaranteed long-term supply would fit neatly into the Coalition’s nuclear plans.

The impact on Australian carbon emissions of the Coalition’s coal-to-nuclear plan would be catastrophic. The desperately tight timetable for meeting Australia’s legislated 2030 emissions target of 43 per cent below 2005 levels would be gone (requiring new legislation) along with our recently-acquired reputation as a nation that cares about climate change. And we would effectively be pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which expressly forbids weakening interim targets.

The diminishing number of city-based Liberals know all about the potential electoral cost of so carelessly reversing that target and the reputational gain that came with it. You could see and hear it on the airwaves last week, in their tense, glum expressions and trigger-happy responses to interview questions. 

They went through the motions of trotting out the Coalition talking points – the impact on power prices of Labor’s impossible 2030 emissions and renewables targets, exaggerated costs of carbon-free nuclear, their continuing commitment to Paris and net-zero by 2050 – but there can be no denying that they are deeply worried.

No such concern was evident from their leader, nor from leading proponents of the Coalition’s crash-and-burn policy shift, the likes of Joyce and Canavan and energy spokesman Ted O’Brien. They continue to pay lip-service to the science where convenient while patently rejecting or ignoring those parts that don’t fit. Their demeanour conveys the absolute conviction of a new-age Spanish Inquisition.

There’s a dark cloud hanging over Peter Dutton’s new energy narrative in the form of persistent questioning about the location of nuclear plants. Nuclear risks are doubtless being exaggerated, but given the Coalition’s record of misinformation about renewables and climate change, their leader is in no position to complain. 

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