After five months of deliberation, the handpicked government committee looking into the feasibility of nuclear energy for Australia has released its report. Not surprisingly, it gives nuclear the thumbs up, with a catch. Nuclear power the report says could be viable if a carbon tax became so high as to make coal more expensive by 20-50 percent.
And that’s the real reason why this report was commissioned. Coal has been getting dirtier and dirtier in the eyes of the Australian public over the past decade as climate change has risen in the public consciousness.
Politicians in Australia know that to push a nuclear power reactor on a community would put an end to their political career. The only three states that would realistically have a need for a reactor, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland are also the three most powerful states economically and therefore by default, politically as well.
Push a reactor on one of those states and the political party who did it would loose the ability to win in that state for decades and with it, any chance of winning a federal election. It wouldn’t just be individual politicians careers that would end but also their political party would suffer from the legacy for years if not decades.
The community opposition to a nuclear power plant would be unprecedented in scale; the Franklin River dam protests of the early 1980’s that began a new era of environmental awareness in Australia and was a defining reason for the election of a new government would appear to be a small disturbance in comparison. So if politicians know that they can’t build a nuclear power plant anywhere in the country and coal is one of the biggest industries, why bother exploring nuclear?
It is precisely that coal is so important economically that nuclear is being discussed. By showing such an unpalatable option like nuclear energy as the only viable alternative takes pressure off the coal industry to be reduced or eliminated in Australia. The politicians leading the nuclear call including the Prime Minister are indulging in their favourite past time, wedge politics.
In the preceding months before the nuclear committee was formed, other viable candidates for a new energy future in Australia were receiving unwanted attention from the federal government in Canberra. After a decade of ignoring biodiversity issues, the Environment Minister suddenly became deeply concerned for the welfare of a rare species of parrot. So much so that he stopped the construction of a large wind farm that was to be built near the birds flight path. With wind energy dealt a blow it was time to start talking nuclear.
All the while coal, one of the largest and most profitable industries in the country with its new image of ‘clean coal’ courtesy of a rebrand has been putting its hand out for tax payers money to develop a new technology to reduce CO2 emissions. Real renewable energy technologies on the other hand, many of them already available, get token funding but not the mega dollars that the powerful coal industry is getting.
The current federal government won’t be leaving Australia a nuclear legacy, nor a clean energy legacy but a community wedged and divided into ever-smaller pieces, and the coal industry will continue on as they have for the past century.