Richard Broinowski writes:

Lowy Institute Research Fellow Daniela Strube should perhaps spend a bit more time examining trends in energy research. The pro-nuclear environmentalists portrayed in the film Pandora’s Promise are neither intriguing nor rare. For it is a standard ploy of big energy business, or rather big uranium mining interests, to portray themselves as environmentalists.

A recurring theme of pro-nuclear advocates representing the international nuclear industry has been that nuclear power is safe, clean, cheap, and an answer to global warming. In 2011, the Lowy Institute was itself host to two major nuclear energy forums in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The first was held on 20 April, the second on 9 June. Both were promoted by the then Deputy Director of the Institute Martine Letts as ‘objective’ and ‘unemotional’ discussions of nuclear power. But almost all speakers in both were aggressively pro-nuclear, and several sought to play the environmental card – how clean nuclear is compared to fossil fuel, and how a sufficiently robust expansion in the construction of nuclear power reactors around the world could halt and reverse carbon emissions. 

Yes, legitimate debate on nuclear power should not, as Daniela asserts, be turned into ideological warfare. And yes, it is irresponsible to shut down relevant debate for no reason other than political sentiment. But who wants to shut the debate down?

In every even-handed debate I have witnessed, the facts speak for themselves, and the anti-nukes have been only too keen to present arguments about the inadvisability, even the impossibility, of a sudden u-turn in the world’s diminishing fleet of nuclear power plants. Even countries like China, India and Russia, which have ambitious plans to increase the size and capacity of their nuclear fleets, tacitly admit that these will not slow, let alone stop, the growth of fossil-fueled electricity generation, or reverse the diminution of nuclear plants. As a rough rule of thumb, for every new reactor being built, or planned to be built, ten fossil-fueled plants are on their drawing boards. This is why Australian thermal coal exports continue to expand so strongly.

The international nuclear industry has no answers to a depressing reality – nuclear power plants are increasingly complex and expensive to build and de-commission, and the prudential costs of a nuclear accident too great. There are also the unsolved problems of radioactive waste disposal and the ever-present danger that fuel may be diverted to weapons programs. Even the French are beginning to see this.

Meanwhile, another exciting reality is that genuinely clean energy paths, such as solar, wind, tidal and geothermal, are expanding across the globe and becoming cheaper as they go. If anything can, the international adoption of such technologies can indeed slow global warming. Nothing else will.