THE ARENA: July 05, AU Edition

july05arenaart.jpgJAMES MORROW
Sixty million Frenchmen – and even several Age readers – can’t be wrong
A good friend of mine recently acquired an antique Atomic brand coffee maker. You know the ones I’m talking about: they’re curvy, stylish and Italian, and have more class in their steam control nozzle than any modern $1,999 job that grinds the beans automatically and can be picked up at any big homewares store has in its entire plastic housing. He was telling me about the great history of the things (during World War II, for example, workers at the Atomic factory in Italy stamped the filter’s drip-holes in a Star of David pattern, in quiet protest against the Nazis), and we mused on how amazing it was that, back when the machine was invented, the word ‘atomic’ was the advertising copywriter’s ace in the hole. The boundless promise of the future, the power of science to solve problems, the latest and greatest in technology and design – all were summed up by that one word: ‘atomic’.
Indeed, we were all supposed to be commuting back and forth to the moon in our atomic flying space-cars by now.
But in 2005, Holden’s not making any nuclear-powered Commodores, car makers still tout road-holding – rather than gravity-defying – ability as a selling point, and the word ‘atomic’ has long-since been hijacked to represent everything bad that the men (and they’re always men) in the white lab coats can come up with.
It is time for this to end. Australia, and the world, are on the brink of serious energy shortfalls, yet one of the safest, cleanest, and even greenest electricity supplies in the country is still only being talked about by most politicians in sideways whispers. Fortunately, since I broached this topic in this column two months ago, things have started to change. The Chicken Little propaganda that has, with the help of compliant journalists, teachers unions, and politicians, scared normally-unflappable Australians into thinking that nuclear power will see mushroom clouds rising over Sydney Harbour, is beginning to come undone.

Without mixing fairy tale metaphors too much, it is becoming ever more clear that the anti-nuclear emperor has no clothes.
It all started when NSW Premier Bob Carr released a trial balloon suggesting that, just maybe, it was time to build a nuclear power plant to help meet the electricity needs of Australia’s most populous state. Of course, the move was exactly the sort of cynical ploy that has made Bob the Builder the longest-serving premier in New South Wales history: what he really wanted, of course, was more coal-burning power plants, and the nuclear option, he figured, would scare voters into sticking with the lung-blackening devil they know.
And just in case people missed the nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more nature of Carr’s nuclear option, he underlined it by pointing out that while a swell idea in theory, state law forbade the opening of any nuclear waste dumps in NSW (while at the same time conveniently ignoring his legislative power to change such a rule).
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the furphy: an awful lot of Australians took a look at the idea and said, hey, maybe nuclear power isn’t such a bad idea after all.
The first sign that opinion had changed came from the letters pages of Melbourne’s Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, both left-wing echo chambers where correspondents routinely compete to out-radical each other, and conservative voices are so rare that they deserve endangered species protection. (By way of illustration, the day after Peter Costello delivered his widely-praised budget speech earlier this year, the Herald was unable to find one single correspondent who thought that it was a good idea).
Yet on 15 June, for example, the Herald’s lead letter came from one Richard Paulin of North Ryde, who wrote, ‘Some questions for Professor Stuart White, resident anti-nuclear advocate. If nuclear power is so inefficient, why does France, which is 80 per cent nuclear, export $5 billion of electricity annually? If nuclear power waste is an insurmountable problem, why is that country not a nuclear wasteland? If nuclear power is so expensive, why does [sic] France’s steel manufacturers use electric arc furnaces, powered by electricity, rather than Australia’s coke-fired blast furnaces?
‘We need to be far more energy efficient’, Paulin continued. ‘But [Professor White] has done nothing to disprove the fact that nuclear power remains the single most efficient and sustainable energy source for the future.’
A few days earlier in the Age, columnist Terry Lane wrote that ‘Chernobyl frightens us away from nuclear power, but the Canadian province of Ontario, not unlike the state of Victoria, gets 40 per cent of its power from nuclear plants and, as far as I know, has not had a single nuclear accident…
If the likes of the letters editors at the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald are any guide, there is a real shift in sentiment in the community, towards a position that accepts that electricity is needed to run our modern, technological society and that there are trade-offs with any form of electricity generation. Australians recognize that green holy grails of endlessly-renewable power simply don’t exist, that wind farms are ugly and shred kookaburras, solar is impractical, and coal and oil are both dirty and ever-dwindling resources. Under this line of thinking, people recognize that nuclear power might not be perfect either, but that it is well worth discussing.
Indeed, the question of renewability and dependency is one which reverberates through this entire debate. While Australia’s coal resources are abundant, it is hardly a great way to generate power: even clean coal is still pretty dirty, and for all the talk about the potential danger of nuclear power, precious little is said about all those lives lost or shortened due to cancer, in mining accidents, and otherwise as a result of this form of power generation.
Petroleum, meanwhile, is a more complicated question, but there is a growing concern (see Clare Swinney’s feature story, ‘The Good Oil’, on p. 52 of this issue) that mankind may be a few decades away from having seriously depleted the planet’s easily-accessible crude supplies. And while that may seem like a long way away, building infrastructure to cope with a changing energy use profile takes.