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March 08th 2010 print

Tom Quirk

Melbourne’s nuclear non-debate

The best response came from Dr James Hansen who quietly said that more people had been killed by ice flying off wind turbine blades than from nuclear accidents.

Should Australia embrace nuclear power? 

On Thursday, 4th March 2010 a debate on the need for nuclear power in Australia was held at the Melbourne Town Hall. Intelligence2 was the sponsor with your ABC and The Age as “media partners”. The debate could be best described by analogy to insurance claims for the collision between two apparently stationary cars. Each side came possessed of its own facts and was reluctant to share any of them with the opposing side. 

Those for nuclear power were led by Dr James Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Science in New York. Hansen was introduced as the godfather of climate change and there were similarities with the Soprano family as he threatened us all with Armageddon unless we changed our ways. He lamented the widening difference of opinion of scientists from the general public due to a hoax just as the science was crystallising. The solution was to embrace fourth generation nuclear power plants that would wander the earth leaving few radioactive trails. In the mean time a carbon tax rather than a cap-and-trade system should be introduced with the tax being returned to the public although how this would provide an incentive to change behaviour was not clear. 

Molly Harriss Olson led for those against nuclear power. During the Clinton presidency she was the founding Director of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. She may be a disciple of Dr Helen Caldicott as she dismissed nuclear power as expensive, dangerous and not necessary. Further it was unreliable. Her example was the reduced reactor power output during the last hot European summer where river water temperatures rose thus reducing the available water cooling. Even water cooled coal burning plants would have suffered the same fate! However it was a good selective fact. Catastrophic accidents and no long term solution to waste disposal rounded off the dismissal of nuclear power. 

Dr Erica Smyth, a director of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), then explained how as we moved to electric cars we would need to charge our batteries from nuclear electricity. At the same time we could drink water from nuclear powered desalination plants. All this needed base load power that could only come from coal, gas or nuclear power plants. 

Dr Mark Diesendorf, Deputy Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales immediately contradicted this and dismissed Dr Hansen’s reactor story as unrealisable inside thirty years. This was probably a serious underestimate. Dr Diesendorf suggested a future of 40% renewable energy by 2020 and, if we got stuck into it, 80% by 2030. Along with this were fabulous export opportunities. Liquid hydrogen would be shipped world wide along with methanol. It seemed as sensible as CO2 being shipped from Italy to Australia in bottles of sparkling mineral water. Perhaps branding Australian “isotope-lite” hydrogen would do it. 

Dr Ziggy Switkowski, Chair of ANSTO, gave the most boring summing up as he had more facts than anyone else. He simply pointed out the countries using and building reactors, the cost basis for so doing and the need for the nuclear option with the uncertainty of projects such as geosequestration of CO2 so beloved of our Prime Minister and a Mr Garnaut. 

Dr Jim Green of Friends of the Earth dismissed all of the examples quoted by the other side and pointed to the dangers of nuclear weapon proliferation. No country should be trusted and even Australia, in simpler times, had toyed with the idea of developing nuclear weapons. The disposal of wastes, either mine tailings or spent fuel rods, was the other great unsolved problem. 

There was no real discussion or analysis of the issues surrounding the use of nuclear power. There are in fact technical solutions to the issues raised by opponents of the use of nuclear power. Proliferation has no clear solution. The worry is not so much a rogue state, unless they are intending state suicide or martyrdom, but more the terrorist use of nuclear material. 

This had taken about one hour of patient listening from an audience of 1200. The moderator then opened the debate to the floor after announcing that the entrance vote was 35% for nuclear, 27% against with the balance undecided. The composition of the audience was intriguing. It seemed to follow the definition, due to Private Eye, that an environmental crisis is a meeting of a lot of men with beards. However the audience was well balanced gender-wise so the definition should be changed to people with rucksacks. There were many more speakers wanting to oppose nuclear power but the moderator balanced those for the motion with those against. There were no stunning contributions from the floor and after 30 minutes the debaters were invited to respond while a fresh vote from the audience was counted. 

The best response came from Dr Hansen who quietly said that more people had been killed by ice flying off wind turbine blades than from nuclear accidents. Dr Diesendorf introduced a new class of “denier”, the “renewable energy denier”. These points just about sum up the clash of ideas from the “theoreticians” of energy. 

The moderator then announced the results of the closing vote, 38% in favour, 59% against and 3% bemused. It came as a surprise to the writer that so many were in favour of nuclear power as the audience was self selected having had to buy $30 tickets. On the way out near the Town Hall steps a rebel group of anti-nuclear campaigners had a large inflated white elephant! It may spring a leak sometime soon.