23.02.21. “The frequent incursions of Chinese fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace invites two conclusions. The least likely is that China’s air force has a dodgy navigation system. More probably, it is spoiling for a fight. If ever there were a time for our political class to shake off the nuclear taboo it is now. The imperative to strengthen Australia’s underwater naval capability is stronger than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The benefits of switching from diesel-electric to nuclear submarines deserve to be debated. A spin-off from a nuclear defence capability would be the chance to install nuclear reactors to generate electricity, since defence and civil benefits go hand in hand. If we are serious about eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the option of nuclear must surely be on the table. Yet Anthony Albanese has dismissed the idea of nuclear energy as “a fantasy”, ruling out the possibility of bipartisan agreement on his watch.”
Source: Nick Cater, News Corp
Rise of China puts nuclear power option back on table
Albanese’s nuclear phobia goes back a long way. As shadow environment minister in 2006 he set up a scare campaign with a written parliamentary question to prime minister John Howard. “Will he rule out locating a high-level nuclear reactor in the federal electoral division of (i) Adelaide, (ii) Aston … ? ” The question listed all 150 electorates, concluding Werriwa, Wide Bay and Wills.
This warning shot across the Coalition’s bow was enough to silence any serious discussion about nuclear in the run-up to the 2007 election. It also served to tie Kevin Rudd’s hands. How different things might now be if the incoming prime minister had spent his not inconsiderable political capital on opening the door to nuclear as a means of solving the great moral challenge, as wiser heads such as Bob Carr were urging him to do.
Think of the deaths that could have been avoided, since installing solar panels and wind turbines is a surprisingly dangerous exercise. The death toll from solar power per unit of energy supplied is more than five times as high as the death toll from nuclear, according to estimates from Cambridge House in Canada. By the same measure, nuclear power is 1000 times safer than coal and 400 times safer than natural gas. Yet still Albanese persists with the lame excuse that nuclear power is too dangerous to consider.
Not for the first time, Labor finds itself siding with the Greens on energy policy, and possibly defence policy as well. Overturning the ban on nuclear would be “crackpot stuff”, claims Sarah Hanson-Young. “Aside from being a dangerous technology, nuclear power is wildly expensive and would take a decade or more to build,” she said. Unlike her own plan to take $42bn out of the defence budget to invest in renewable energy.
The conventional wisdom within the Coalition is that a political fight with Labor over nuclear is best avoided. Yet the world has changed mightily in the past decade and a half and the nuclear debate has moved on.
The large pressurised-water reactors that were becoming all but impossible to build thanks in no small part to the costs imposed by regulation are yesterday’s technology. Small modular reactors, however, with almost no risk of meltdown or explosion, may be with us faster than we think. If the cost can be driven down through mass production, they could become a competitive source of energy in Australia. Small, locally based generators help reduce grid costs, an important advantage in a nation as large as ours.
As our ambitions to reduce carbon emissions move into crazy-brave territory, ruling out nuclear becomes less tenable. It is sobering to remind ourselves that Rudd’s policy was a relatively modest 60 per cent reduction by 2050. Today the world and his dog are promising 100 per cent, with precious little clarity about the technology that will get us there. Labor is trailing in the politics of energy and climate change, and the nuclear option provides the Coalition with another wedge, exploiting the dispute between the commonsense faction and the utopian fringe. For all the obsession with wind and solar, nuclear and hydro power provide three-quarters of the world’s global low-carbon generation. Nuclear power alone has reduced CO2 emissions by more than 60 gigatonnes over the past 50 years, nearly two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions. Illogically, the strongest opposition to nuclear is from those most committed to emissions reduction.
While highlighting lefty hypocrisy is an amusing pastime, it doesn’t win elections. The most potent reason for playing the nuclear card is not to assuage climate anxiety, a condition that is largely limited to voters pathologically incapable of voting Liberal or National. It is the rise of China, which has become a destabilising and unpredictable force in our region.
Fast, long-distance submarines capable of remaining immersed almost indefinitely and bristling with intelligence and offence capability will be the most effective contribution Australia can make in defence of freedom in our region. You don’t have to be a hawk to realise a Chinese attack on the sovereignty of Taiwan is more likely than not sometime this decade. The Chinese government’s escalating rhetoric is reason enough to be alarmed.
The diesel-electric subs on order operate well in coastal waters and are likely to serve us well in defending Australia’s northern and northwestern approaches, but are ill-suited to the job of force projection. Nuclear subs provide much better support for surface strike groups, can shadow ballistic missile submarines and deny enemy fleets access to zones of interest. They can operate closer to the enemies’ bases, deployed covertly to avoid raising tension.
In the world of submarines, the words cheap and quick never apply. A nuclear fleet would require a massive investment in naval infrastructure, not to mention a uranium enrichment facility. China’s assertiveness in the region, however, is changing the cost-benefit calculation and the politics. In defence, as in energy, Australia’s peculiar nuclear objections may be a luxury we can no longer afford.
Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre.