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Opinion: Melissa Price goes nuclear (like deja vu)

The Liberal and National parties have awoken from a long climate-denying slumber - as though the three nuclear power inquiries, the SA Royal Commission and the Switkowski report were all a dream – calling for yet another debate on nuclear power.

That they want another debate on nuclear, framed as an energy option to address the climate crisis they didn’t believe was happening until recently, is less about nuclear power than it is about perpetuating the culture wars that have dominated energy policy in Australia for the last decade.

From town hall meetings, endless opinion pieces and newspaper polls, the Switkowski report (2006), the South Australian Royal Commission (2015) and the three separate government inquiries (C'th 2019, NSW 2019, Vic 2020) - the nuclear power debate has been had numerous times.
A few members of the Liberals and Nationals and the uranium companies that dominate the Mineral Council of Australia just didn’t like the outcome. Most of these inquiries have been driven by and led by pro-nuclear enthusiasts, and the answer has been the same. Nuclear is too slow, too expensive and it does not have public support. These three insurmountable issues remain the same today.

For those on the anti-nuclear side of the debate, there are also endless other issues that exclude nuclear power from being an option. It relies on uranium fuel which when mined leaves behind radioactive and toxic tailings which pollute our environment and uses up precious water (see the $2 billion clean up at Ranger uranium mine). Every stage of the cycle produces nuclear waste which there is no long-term solution for managing. Nuclear power produces spent nuclear fuel which can be used to produce nuclear weapons which pose an existential threat to the world. At every stage of the nuclear cycle, marginalised communities are disproportionately impacted.

That’s all on a good day. On a bad day we end up with Fukushima or Chernobyl - communities permanently displaced. As we head into an uncertain climate future, there are new kinds of threats to nuclear reactors. In France we have seen a glimpse into the future with more and more frequent shutdowns in the summer months – even now as they head into winter half of their nuclear fleet is switched off and remains shut down over safety issues.

This year a whole new generation of people have gotten a taste of the threat of nuclear war with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This war has also shown us how civilian nuclear reactors are used as military targets or nuclear shields during war. Nuclear reactors are pre-deployed military targets everywhere they exist.

The nuclear power debate in Australia has been had and has been centred around costs, safety, proliferation, and public opposition. So yes, if we’re going to have a debate again let’s also consider the safety of nuclear reactors in a changing climate and how nuclear reactors might be used as military targets. But let’s not pretend we haven’t had the debate before.

Mia Pepper is a Nuclear Free Campaigner at the Conservation Council of WA

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