Daniela Strube is a Research Fellow in the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre.
There are few policies considered so universally bad that their unconditional rejection creates a rare state of ideological harmony across party lines. Labor and the Coalition’s strict no-nuclear-power stance is one of the few such issues. Some prominent figures from both sides have voiced careful support for keeping at least the possibility alive, but Fukushima has ensured that nuclear power remains politically dead in Australia.
Even beyond the realm of politics, much of the world is united in open hostility towards nuclear power, across political tendencies, age groups, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
Major nuclear power-producing countries have seen a dramatic reduction in public support for nuclear energy. In Japan, the Fukushima disaster has clearly crunched people’s trust in the safety and viability of nuclear power plants. Following Fukushima, Germany’s formerly pro-nuclear government decided to shut down all its nuclear power plants as soon as 2022. Italy and Switzerland are also on the way out. The American public remains mildly sceptical of nuclear power, and of the major advanced economies, only France and the UK seem to be able to uphold adequate public support. Even in emerging countries such as China and India, public concerns over nuclear power generation are mounting. Nuclear energy has clearly gone out of fashion.
Last week the documentary Pandora’s Promise by American director Robert Stone began touring Australia. It traces the personal stories of people who used to oppose nuclear energy and have since been convinced that there might be a positive side to it.
Pandora's Promise portrays an intriguingly rare species: the pro-nuclear environmentalist. On nuclear power the divide seems clear-cut: on the one side, we have the environmentally and ethically conscious individuals. On the other side, there is big energy business and what is seen as their Machiavellian pursuit of profit that compromises our kids’ prospects for growing up in a healthy environment. An environmentally-minded pro-nuclear ‘good guy’ seems entirely paradoxical. But the real paradox is that finding viable solutions to combating climate change requires the perspective of the pro-nuclear environmentalist.
Yes, nuclear power is scary, and yes, big energy businesses are probably not the best environmentalists (or in fact necessarily able to manage the risks of nuclear power generation adequately – Tepco’s poor performance in the Fukushima incident is a clear case in point). But legitimate debate should not be turned into ideological warfare, as has happened in the case of nuclear power.
In fact, especially as citizens of the so-called advanced world, we have a responsibility to consider every option for combating climate change, including nuclear power. Our prosperity is built on dirty energy and we are now asking the developing world to refrain from using this path to development because we are worried about the climate. Instead of reducing fossil energy in favour of a perfectly viable low-carbon alternative such as nuclear, we would rather keep nuclear power plants out of our backyards and opt to wait for a renewables miracle while we keep polluting in the meantime. For us, this is indeed the more convenient option, but it seems slightly at odds with the goal of a better, fairer and greener world.
Leaving the fairness aspect aside, it is simply irresponsible to shut down a relevant debate for no objective reason other than political sentiments. This is not how an open and responsible democracy is supposed to work. Nuclear power is simply not that bad that we shouldn’t even discuss it. The pro-nuclear environmentalist has a place in the climate change debate and should be heard.