(AAP Image)


Originally published in The New Daily on March 19, 2024

Nuclear energy really is remarkable.

It solves so many political problems without solving any real-world problems. No wonder the government and Coalition love to fight about it. It’s a fantastic distraction from their bipartisan support for fossil fuel expansion and fossil fuel subsidies.

In most jobs, being accused of making a mountain out of a molehill is a criticism, but in Australian politics it is a key skill. Whether it is turning refugees arriving on boats (as opposed to planes) into a national security crisis, turning electric vehicles into the ‘end of the weekend’, or Australia’s lack of nuclear power stations (who knew!) into an energy crisis, there is no doubt the Coalition and its friends in the conservative media know how to turn a storm in a teacup into a cyclone.

But while Labor is often wedged by the Coalition’s relentless rhetoric, when it comes to nuclear, Labor is clearly keen to meet Peter Dutton head on.

Chris Bowen is right – nuclear is expensive and unsuitable for Australia. But the real benefit for Labor is not that he is right and Dutton is wrong. Rather, it is the distraction provided by a ‘debate’ about nuclear energy.

Since taking office in 2022, Tanya Plibersek has approved four new coal mines, at least 116 new gas wells and there are another 100-plus fossil fuel projects seeking approval.

In its first budget, Labor found $1.5 billion to subsidise gas export infrastructure at Middle Arm in Darwin. The Albanese government’s ‘favour for Santos’ bill passed with Coalition support and further changes to help new gas projects look likely to go the same way.

Even though the subsidised gas industry is making record profits, Labor’s proposed changes to the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax (PRRT) are so weak that the gas industry was actually the first to commend them for “getting the balance right”.

Labor doesn’t want to have a fight with the Greens and teals at the next election about climate change. Chris Bowen and Tanya Plibersek know how often they get asked why Australia is still building and subsidising new fossil fuel projects and they both know their efforts to ignore the question no longer work. Voters just don’t believe that more gas and coal mines are needed to transition away from fossil fuels. Voters see through the disingenuous rhetoric of suggesting it is ‘irresponsible’ to shut down the coal industry ‘overnight’ when literally no one is calling for that.

If the Albanese government’s support for subsidised fossil fuel expansion is front of mind at the next election, then it is Labor that may lose more inner-city seats to independents and the Greens rather than the Coalition.

But if Labor can make enough sensible noise about the Coalition’s nonsensical support for nuclear, then it is Labor that will likely pick up inner-city seats like Paul Fletcher’s seat of Bradfield, James Stevens’ seat of Sturt or David Coleman’s seat of Banks.

Which brings me to why the Coalition is so keen on nuclear energy now that it has no power to do anything about it. Not only did the Coalition fail to even try to remove the ban on nuclear power that passed under John Howard, in 2019, in a review commissioned by Angus Taylor, Ted O’Brien concluded that the moratorium on existing nuclear power station technologies be maintained and that any “partial lift of the moratorium be subject to a technology assessment and a commitment to community consent as a condition of approval”.

But now that it is in opposition, having spent 10 years in office not promoting nuclear power, the Coalition suddenly wants the Albanese government to act with a haste that it explicitly rejected.

So, what’s going on?

The few remaining inner-city Liberal MPs know what Tanya Plibersek and Chris Bowen know, that educated voters want out of fossil fuels as fast as they can. But while Labor MPs are free to talk up the benefits of investing in renewable energy (while dodging the issue of fossil fuel exports), the Liberals can’t talk up solar and wind without triggering a tantrum from Barnaby Joyce. And while the Nationals would happily talk up the benefits of Australia’s ‘clean coal’, even they know doing so will cost the Coalition what remains of its urban support.

And that’s Australian politics in a nutshell. The Coalition is talking about nuclear to avoid an internal fight about coal. And Labor loves to fight about nuclear with the Liberals so they can avoid a fight with the Greens and teals about coal and gas.

Here’s what we do know about the real world. Small modular nuclear reactors don’t exist. Even the Liberals ruled out the big old ones when they were in office. And Australia, the world’s third-largest fossil fuel exporter, is planning a massive expansion in fossil fuel exports in the coming years.

No matter where in the world Australian gas and coal is burned, it will destroy our Great Barrier Reef, cause more storms and floods and bushfires on Australian soil, and kill more Australians in heatwaves. It takes a mountain of rubbish to hide the bipartisan support for Australia’s fossil fuel expansion plans.

Luckily, nuclear power provides the perfect molehill from which to make such a mountain.

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