Rachel Bailey is a regular Decarbonise SA reader and has kindly offered this fine piece for the Decarbonise SA Summer Edition. She is currently completing her Postgraduate Degree in Energy Policy and the Environment specialising in Global Warming and Climate Science, with Murdoch University. As such she is keenly following public policy debate for all things energy related, and consequently the climate change agenda too. She has worked in Natural Resource Management, and has a history of negotiating mining and exploration agreements between Traditional Owners in Australia and the large mining companies.
As you will read, she has been doing some musing…
The conundrum of kick starting a nuclear energy debate in the Australian populace – Why does no one want to talk about it?
Have you ever been at a party and started a topical line that goes like this? So… what do you think of nuclear energy, does it float your boat? If you’re a somewhat cautious fellow it’s likely not. This line of questioning is uncommon in Australia and I get the impression that it is more so than the rest of the world.
Mention of nuclear energy as an option for the energy mix in an Australian context is enough to send some people apoplexic. The automated response is “I’ll discuss nuclear, when they’ve fixed the waste issue”. This abdication of responsibility to an unknown expert is seen as perfectly legitimate within the Australian psyche. I have noted that this dismissal is not always done by those who can be categorised as not knowing any better. The recent release of the Grattan Institute’s report on “No easy choices: which way to Australia’s energy future?” have seen much coverage in the media and chat rooms of late. Yet despite this report canvassing nuclear energy as low carbon emission technology it is not mentioned in any of the reviews by the media, even in interviews with the authors. Now this report goes into lots of detail about the economic and technological feasibility of an Australian nuclear industry, and I am not going to quibble with that. If anything I recommend it to you as a clearly written interesting policy analysis of the choices available to Australians to transform our energy profile. I do however find it curious that the Grattan Institute omits discussion of this form of energy with its dealings with the media. Perhaps I do them a disservice and it is in fact a result of heavy editing by said media that this approach is perceived. These observations have led me to ponder why it is that no one wants to talk about Nuclear.
It’s all just too complicated and tedious
I would suggest that to the lay person the words “Nuclear Science” have the same ring tone as “Rocket Science”. Unwillingness from technocrats to translate their jargon, and dump their acronyms, forces only the most dedicated of interested parties to push past all the fog and truly grasp the concepts. The implicit reliance upon the goodwill of the reader should not be taken for granted. Other boffins are not your target audience; true advocates of change will need to speak to the general populous. This is not to imply that they need it dumbed down, but front of mind should be that these people are not being paid to understand this issue nor do they have the resources of an institution behind them. You are competing against a myriad of concerns within their lives all, seeking their attention.
Jumping the divide, it’s just too hard
Have you ever noticed that pondering Nuclear energy is like being stuck within the song lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Stuck in the Middle with you”? The two disparate camps that should be on the same side of the coin get stuck into each other with vertigos gusto. From dizzying heights they pontificate the flaws of the other, and it goes something like this:
“The Real Environmentalists” – Those who believe that nuclear power should be part of the mix. They cannot countenance those other patsy environmentalists who “just don’t get it”. They must not be “real environmentalists” because they believe that all these stop gap solutions like renewables, energy efficiency, and conservation of energy are going to deliver! Can you believe it? They probably believe that altruism is going to solve this issue. Pffffft. As you can see this group has a healthy dose of self-righteousness, and is capable of issuing a psychological whip crack that will leave others breathless.
“The Down to Earth Environmentalists” – Those who believe that any advocacy of nuclear power should be viewed as a betrayal to one’s green credentials. Accusations of selling out may soon follow. They believe that those other turncoat environmentalists are simply misinformed, deluded, and have seriously underestimated the dangers of nuclear. As you can see this group has a healthy dose of self-righteousness, and is capable of judging more harshly than an ex-smoker towards their former brethren.
All this leaves the punter “Stuck in the middle with you!” You know the tune, feel free to hum along. Is it any wonder that the average person dipping their toe into the waters of this debate feels very reticent towards declaring their thoughts? It is fraught with the danger that they too will be howled down, labelled as defecting from the cause, or worse still denigrated as being unaware of the problem.
An active policy towards staying mum in the body politic
There is a curiously circular argument that dominates Australian politics where our leaders are on the record saying that they will not consider nuclear energy until the Australian populous supports it. Yet policy documents indicate that it will not achieve popular support without political leadership. Politicians will not talk about this issue due to too many negative connotations such as the nuclear waste issue, potential nuclear weapons development, potentially high capital start-up costs subsidised by government being unpopular, and the all-important potential for something to go wrong (and not just with the political backlash) due to the complex nature of reactor plants. Subsequently we are governed by sound bites of fear or dismissal of the issue.
The not in my backyard syndrome
This is a well-known phenomenon in Australia. While those who actively support the pronuclear cause are rather small presently there are others who are undecided. What they are clear on is the fact that if a nuclear industry were to develop they wouldn’t want it near them. One hundred percent confidence in the safety is not evident. They are aware that this is a hypocrite’s stance, and it causes an inner cringe. Not feeling that they can back their position to the utmost, they will vouch not to talk about it, due their slight sense of shame. Yet one more reason it is not good to start discussions at the party with “So….Nuclear! Does it float your boat?” You will be the cause of awkward squirming and quite possibly the cause of one person popping a blood pressure vessel due to apoplexy, and the start of a lot of shouting. Your host might not thank you and it is dubious whether you will be invited back. Nuclear, no one wants to talk about it.