Nuclear power interview

Ian Lowe AO is emeritus professor in science at Griffith University and president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. I interviewed him last week  about the present nuclear power debate. The exchange began  with a discussion of the recently released Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANTSO) report advocating nuclear energy production for Australia.

DR: The ANTSO report offers  a rather bizarre  argument as it is  costed with complete disdain for any alternative option to nuclear power.

IL: I don’t know of  any objective study that has ever concluded that nuclear power comes within a bull’s roar of being economic in Australia. It takes very creative assumptions to lead to that conclusion. What ANTSO are arguing is that there are a new generation of nuclear reactions on the horizon that will  be cheaper and safer and more efficient than any that have yet been built. I think it’s a case of saying , “stop me if you’ve heard this one”, because the nuclear industry has been saying that for forty years. But so far nuclear power hasn’t  proved to be cost effective even in crude economic terms, even if you aren’t concerned about the environmental and security issues.

DR: Also interesting about the ANTSO documentation was that nuclear energy wasn’t possible without government investment and subsidy.

IL: That’s right. This is where the dog is buried. The nuclear power program is predicated on the assumption that there will be massive government subsidies. The only part of the nuclear industry that has ever been profitable in this part of the world has been the mining and selling of uranium. I remember Alan Roberts, now retired from Monash University Physics Department point out twenty years ago that uranium enrichment is subsidized by the public everywhere and as he put it,” wherever uranium is enriched the taxpayers are impoverished.”

DR: The irony about this is that it is a backhanded way of recognising  that nuclear warming does exist.

IL: I said at the National Press Club last year that I welcomed  the debate about nuclear power because it was at least a recognition that climate change was a serious problem. It remains true, as we used to say in the seventies, if nuclear is the answer it must have been a pretty silly question. There is no doubt that efficiency improvements are by far the most cost effective way of reducing climate change. And if you are looking at supply technology, there is a range of renewable options that are economically more attractive than nuclear power without having its security and environmental problems.

DR: You also point out that this is a false argument because it’s pitched as nuclear versus coal. when it should be  in reality  nuclear versus sustainable forms of energy creation.

IL: That’s exactly right because what we are talking about is what form of energy will supply the new generating equipment that will be built in the next twenty five years. That’s really an issue of whether you supplement what we have now and phase out power stations as they go with nuclear or alternative energy resources. It  not just that wind and a good site is now more economically attractive than nuclear is ever likely to be. There’s a new CSIRO report released the other day that says their new solar thermal technology is economically competitive with coal. There’s really no reason at all to be exploring the nuclear option.

DR: What do you think of John Howard’s special investigation team headed by Ziggy  Switoswski -- ex Telstra boss -- with  a few others?

IL: It is about as independent as an Alabama sheriff. The fact that Switoswski  was, at the time of his appointment, on the board of ANTSO and that he was part of the group that commissioned that shonky report claiming that nuclear was cost effective for Australia --and even though he now has stepped aside form his position on the board of ANTSO -- that doesn'tt stand him aside form his pro nuclear position. The group looks like it has been set up to provide a positive report  to justify further involvement of the government in the nuclear industry.

DR: There are three aspects of this because this debate is being engendered for some time. One aspect is the question of uranium mining. Another aspect is the question of uranium used in energy production. And I suppose the third is one is the storage of uranium in “fantastically safe” sites somewhere in the country. These are the three prongs of the present push aren’t they?

IL:That’s right. I think really it’s crass politics as you would expect of John Howard. There are three reasons for bringing the issue up now. One is that it distracts attention from the government’s other problems and palpable deficiencies. The second is that it very effectively wedges the Labor Party which is divided on the issues of uranium mining and export. And the third is that it poses the spectre of an Australian nuclear power industry and when the inquiry concludes that  this would only happen if there were massive government subsidies, people will be so relieved that we aren’t having nuclear power stations that  they will be more accepting of an expansion of uranium exports and possibly more accepting even of the argument that e should put public money into enriching uranium on the grounds that this produces a value added product. Then of course they will run the argument as they have socce voce for a few years that as a massive uranium exporter we have a  moral responsibility to accept the waste back.

DR:As a stalking horse this is a win-win situation for John Howard.

IL: I’m sure he sees it that way. But I think it could come back to bite him because it so obviously a shonky inquiry that I don’t think it has very much credibility and it looks like he is playing grubby politics with something that should be a serious issue --namely, how as we as the world’s worst greenhouse polluter per person move to a more responsible energy policy which provides clean, safe and affordable energy for Australians.

DR: When you look back the genesis of so much political activism in this country was the movement against uranium mining. It was almost the linking campaign between  the anti war activism of the sixties and seventies and the  nuclear disarmament movement of the eighties. Do you think that strong sentiment against uranium mining can lead to a strong sentiment against nuclear energy production -- that in this debate there is a major role for massive campaigning of some sort?

IL: I think it is certainly  likely to have a galvanizing effect politically . The fear of nuclear power stations might well lead to  concerted opposition to uranium mining and export because  if we are opposed to nuclear power because of the problems of weapons and waste--as we should be -- then we should be just as opposed to  it in  China or India or Taiwan  or the United States of America or the United Kingdom for that matter --as we are in Australia. At the moment we are being a  bit dishonest about it. We’re maintaining the position that we don;t have nuclear power so therefore we aren’t contributing to weapons and waste.  But we are flogging uranium for all it’s worth -- 13,000 tonnes per year  --every gram of which ends up as radioactive waste. We cannot guarantee that it won’t be used for weapons production. So whether we like it or not we are involved in making the world a dirtier and more dangerous place. The nuclear power debate may focus people’s attention on this moral double standard.

DR: That puts also  the Labor Party under a  lot of pressure.

IL: There are  certainly some within the Labor Party like Martin Ferguson who has been running a campaign saying we should expand mining and we should look favorably at enriching uranium. The Murdoch press have with characteristic dishonesty been betraying this as a test of the economic credentials of the Labor Party. In other words the Labor Party will only , in the view of Rupert Murdoch, be worthy of being elected if it advocates policies indistinguishable from the Liberals by being in favour of an open slather approach to uranium mining, uranium export and possibly enrichment.

DR: The attempted sale of the Snowy scheme suggests to me that business wants to see the capitalization carried by the government while the running and the profiteering is going to be grabbed later on by the same corporations. This is the same pitch with this nuclear proposal, isn’t it?

IL:This is the standard  approach of so called ‘public-private partnerships’ --   the private sector want to go to the casino with public money and keep the winnings if they get lucky and have the government  pick up the tab if they are not. I think it is fundamentally dishonest. and should be seen for what it is which is basically putting the private sector’s hand into the public wallet and allowing it to riffle around and take what it wants.

DR: Generally how do you assess the practicality of alternative power options? What would it take for say wind or solar to become a viable proportion of energy generation in this country?

IL: It would only take some of the commitment in resources and political support that we’ve given nuclear power and coal over the years. We’ve  been funding  nuclear science and technology at Lucas Height at the rate between $50m and $100m a year for fifty years. The Howard government and now the Queensland and Victorian government are now putting in about one billion dollars into research and development of so called ‘clean coal’ technology,. We’re probably spending $10m of public money in all forms of renewable energy put together . I don’t think there is any doubt we can say today  that we won’t build another coal fueled power station, we won;t build a nuclear power station ...we will improve our efficiencies to world’s best practice and we will produce the extra energy we need for a range of alternative sources -- hot dry rock, geo thermal, solar, wind, biomass...    that’s an entirely credible and practical program. It will produce a lot more jobs in regional Australia and a lot more economic benefits than the path we are now going down.