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A nuclear grand bargain ?

September 2, 2019 - 14:36 -- Admin

I wasn’t expecting much of a reaction to my submission to two Parliamentary inquiries into nuclear power, in which I advocated imposing a carbon price (set to rise to $50/tonne over time) and, conditional on this, repealing the existing legislative ban on nuclear power.

Over the weekend, though, I heard that Aaron Patrick of the Fin was asking a few people about it. Given my past history with Patrick, I was expecting a gotcha hatchet job, or worse.

When today’s Fin came out, I was surprised to learn (via Twitter and email, as I don’t subscribe), that the Fin had run not one, but two articles about my submission, both by Patrick. The first that came to my attention was the expected gotcha, focusing on the recommendation to repeal the ban, while softpedalling the carbon price to the point of near-invisibility (just enough of a mention that he could deny having ignored it altogether).

The second, though, was a reasonably accurate and supportive summary of the proposal (a few digs at me, but I have a thick skin). Money quote:

A carbon price would delight the left, and would be unlikely to upset most of the business community. Small-scale nuclear reactors could be framed as a nascent technology that might not ever happen – giving its opponents a short-term political victory in the long-term national interest.A confident and pragmatic centre-right government could seize the opportunity to alter the path of Australian economic and environmental history – from one of the worst emitters of carbon, based on population, to among the lowest.

As I’ve said previously, anyone who seriously believes that nuclear power should be adopted as a response to climate change ought to endorse this proposal. I find it hard to imagine that the nuclear boosters in the LNP are in this category, but if they are, here’s their chance to put their hands up.

Since I’m the primary subject, I don’t feel the need to respect the Fin’s paywall on this one, so here’s the text of the two articles. First the serious one

A path from the left to nuclear powerAaron Patrick ‒ Senior CorrespondentSep 2, 201 an advanced industrial economy is unable to guarantee electricity will flow to factories, hospitals, and homes during the heat waves that appear to be becoming more common on this dry continent – or reasonably priced power on other days – society will, at some point, conclude that energy policy has failed and demand a solution from their political institutions.Public opinion does not favour nuclear energy, the most obvious long-term filler for the reliability gap created by the decline of coal power and its displacement by less-reliable-but-cleaner wind and solar generators.Into this failure of democracy – the political rejection of rational policy – an unlikely source has proposed a devilishly simple solution.John Quiggin, a prolific economist and intellectual leader of the left, has proposed a grand compact – one that could finally end the climate wars, prevent what could conceivably become an energy crisis, support a struggling manufacturing sector and provide future generations with clean, reliable power in perpetuity.The University of Queensland professor proposes ending the ban on nuclear power in return for the immediate introduction of a carbon price. His proposal would reshape the energy economy. Quiggin would initially set a $25 per tonne price for the right to emit carbon dioxide, which would rise to $50 in 2035. Total emissions would be reduced by 40 to 60 per cent by 2030, relative to the year 2000.By 2050, after taking into account the effects of carbon farming and other forms of atmospheric amelioration, Australia’s net emissions would reach a Gilead-like zero.Quiggin must know that his plan would be devastating for coal. A $50 carbon price would kill off those coal power stations that were still operating, according to Tim Buckley, a prominent anti-coal financial analyst. Coal exports, valued at $60 billion now, would be not directly affected.Grand compromiseIn the rejection of an industry almost as old as European settlement lies the germ of a grand compromise that might be capable of breaching the seemingly intractable hostility to nuclear energy.“The Parliament should pass a motion … removing the existing ban on nuclear power,” Quiggin writes in a submission to an inquiry into nuclear power that recently began in the NSW Parliament. “Support for the motion should be binding on all members of the major parties.”In the emotive world of nuclear politics, Quiggin’s call is treason. Others on the left have flirted with nuclear, including climate change activists Tim Flannery and Simon Holmes a Court, and economist Andrew Charlton. None have been prepared to take a central role in the current debate.Public figures who propose Australia secure access to nuclear power – as almost all the nation members of the Organisation for Economic Development have – face personal attacks, facilitated by social media, that make a rational public discussion more difficult.A South Australian energy modeller and pro-nuclear campaigner, Ben Heard, says that before pretty much every second public appearance he agrees to, the organisers express second thoughts after lobbying by Friends of the Earth or others.“I have been called a racist,” he says. “I have been called corrupt. I am constantly called a lobbyist, which I am not. I have been accused of taking public money to deliver ridiculous ideas. I have been called not an environmentalist. I am an environmentalist. I am associated with a company that makes drones and I am somehow accused of being associated with killing children. I receive thinly veiled death threats. This is my life.”Overshadowing the discussion is, as businessman Dr Ziggy Switkowski told a federal parliamentary inquiry last week, a mindset from 1979. Nuclear war was the world’s greatest fear when reactor number two at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania melted down. The accident, which didn’t cost a life, defined the industry in popular culture for a generation. At Daiichi-Fukushima in 2011 – the worst nuclear failure since the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl power plant in 1986 – there has been one reported death from radiation exposure.Fifty nuclear power reactors are now being constructed in 15 countries. Yet anti-nuclear sentiment remains a totemic position on the left in Australia and a major constraint on the Labor Party.Questioning baseloadFighting off inner-city Greens, the opposition is already trying to undermine the nascent debate by arguing that “baseload” is an archaic concept that will be made redundant by mobile phones that charge themselves overnight and Tesla batteries.Without a need for baseload, which is sometimes referred to as ‘firmed’ or ‘dispatchable’ energy, solar and wind power will make expensive nuclear power unnecessary, Labor MPs suggested at last week‘s inquiry, one of three under way.Using language to rewrite the laws of physics isn’t a sustainable strategy, especially in manufacturing-loving Victoria, where Energy Minister Angus Taylor and the energy regulator have warned of blackouts this summer. When airconditioners in voters’ homes stop working on 35-degree days, Elon Musk’s promises of power self sufficiency aren’t going to stop a political backlash.In an era when it is popular to complain about political short-termism, energy policy requires long-term, preferably bipartisan planning. A carbon price could be good politics. Nuclear power, some experts say, could be sensible policy.If Quiggin or others can accept small-scale nuclear power as the cost of a carbon price, opposition on the left to nuclear could fracture. Creating political space for leading political figures on the left not to oppose nuclear would be important, which means welcoming their involvement in the debate.In Quiggin’s case, the Whitlamite academic has felt the need to bolster his credibility with the anti-nuclear community by telling them through the Guardian that the political impediments are too great to overcome – without mentioning his underlying support for the technology.“We don’t need to call on the phantom of nuclear power to secure a reliable, carbon-free electricity supply for the future,” he wrote on July 17, one month before urging NSW to endorse nuclear.A carbon price would delight the left, and would be unlikely to upset most of the business community. Small-scale nuclear reactors could be framed as a nascent technology that might not ever happen – giving its opponents a short-term political victory in the long-term national interest.A confident and pragmatic centre-right government could seize the opportunity to alter the path of Australian economic and environmental history – from one of the worst emitters of carbon, based on population, to among the lowest.To get to that political pivot point, Taylor will have to convince Australians that nuclear power isn’t going to kill them.It is a test for the minister, and of Australian democracy. Is the federation capable of shifting an economy blessed with huge energy sources from one of the most expensive electricity markets to one of the cheapest?

and then the gotcha

Left support for NSW nuclear power industry Patrick Senior CorrespondentSep 2, 2019Left-wing economist John Quiggin has urged the NSW Parliament to legalise nuclear power, making the University of Queensland academic the most prominent environmentalist to support the controversial energy source.Professor Quiggin told a NSW parliamentary inquiry into uranium mining and nuclear power that the ban should be lifted simultaneously with the introduction of a price charged for emitting Greenhouse gases.“The Parliament should pass a motion … removing the existing ban on nuclear power,” he said in a written submission. “Nuclear power is not viable in the absence of a carbon price.”The inquiry, one of three similar under way, is seen by some Coalition MPs as the start of a long process of convincing voters to support nuclear reactors to replace the state’s ageing coal power stations, including Liddell in the Hunter Valley, which is due to close after the summer of 2023.The first step could be allowing mining companies to extract uranium in NSW, as they do in South Australia. Uranium was first discovered in Australia in 1894 near in Orange in central NSW.“[Lifting] the uranium ban could be a way to test public sentiment,” said Taylor Martin, the Liberal chairman of the NSW inquiry.Even though the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor leak in Japan hurt public support for nuclear power, a survey in June by Essential Media estimated 44 per cent of Australians supported nuclear power plants and 40 per cent opposed them.The Minerals Council of Australia, a lobby group, successfully pushed for a federal parliamentary inquiry into nuclear, which is examining the feasibility of a new generation of compact power plants that are meant to be safer and much cheaper than the huge stations that supply about 11 per cent of the world’s electricity.“I think we are opening people’s minds to the fact that the solutions are not just a couple of types of energy sources for your energy situation in Australia,” said Minerals Council chief executive Tania Constable.The NSW inquiry is the result of a private members bill introduced by state One Nation leader Mark Latham that would allow uranium mining. Nuclear power is banned in NSW under federal and state regulations, according to Mr Martin, who said his office hadn’t received any complaints about the inquiry.“I have had not a single email from people even decrying us holding the inquiry,” he said. “I think everyone is quite open to having the discussion and looking at the facts and improvements in reactor design and technology and considering what may be necessary in decades to come.”The NSW inquiry recently inspected a uranium mine in South Australia, about 150km from the NSW border, run by Heathgate Resources.Treasurer Dominic Perrottet and Deputy Premier John Barilaro have both expressed support for nuclear power. Premier Gladys Berejiklian last week said she wasn’t a supporter but encouraged public discussion.“I don’t think we should stop debating it,” she said. “If there are people who feel there are new emerging technologies we should look at, that’s for them.”The biggest impediment to development of the industry is opposition from the Labor and Greens parties, environmental groups and left-wing think tanks such as The Australia Institute.The conditional support of left-wing academics such as Professor Quiggin could, over time, lessen opposition to nuclear power, which supporters say could be used as a back up for wind and solar power.In Victoria a parliamentary inquiry began two weeks ago at the request of a Liberal Democrat MP, David Limbrick.The 12-month inquiry will explore if nuclear energy would be feasible and suitable for Victoria in the future, and consider waste management, health and safety and industrial and medical applications, AAP reported.BHP’s Olympic Dam in South Australia contains 26 per cent of the world’s low-cost uranium and is the world’s largest uranium deposit.