Rachel Bailey

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.

Apoplexy

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

He feels comfortable talking about it. Not really the right yardstick.

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.

Wondering which is junk…

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.

21 comments

  1. I tend to find that most people I talk to are either simply indifferent about it or mildly supportive of it. The real anti-nukes can be spotted from a mile away.

    The problem is that the anti-nukes in Australia have taken the conversation away from us and turned the mere discussion of a nuclear powered Australia into a grave insult against their moral character. They have shut down the debate because they are ‘offended’ by the existence of a debate. We are pandering to a loud minority by not having a reasoned, sensible discussion of it. If you’re discussing politics and/or renewable energy at a BBQ or such a place, nuclear energy is appropriate to bring up and discuss.

    We need to normalise the debate. The only way to do this is to have the debate in the first place.

    1. Dear Mr Snrub,

      I absolutely agree that the debate needs to be normalised. I tried to outline in my article the way that such extreme polarisation of the debate discourages the topic even being broached. If any policy dividends are to be gained in Australia to actually decarbonise our economy then Nuclear needs to at least be on the table for discussion. Sadly too often even mentioning the word seems to give many people license to place you in a “for or against” camp, which can rarely be construed as constructive.

  2. ‘Musings’ is right. Perceptive, but no clear way forward. And I think it’s ‘populace’, not ‘populous’ in this context

  3. Rachel,
    Thanks for a great post. I wanted to pick up on your observations about terminology and how we talk about nuclear energy. As someone who works in the solar PV industry I spend my day speaking to people about energy. In many ways I’m lucky that I promote something that most people feel comfortable with – and want to see more of.
    The challenge we have in starting a conversation about nuclear power, is twofold.
    The first has to do with the word nuclear. Lets play a game of word association. if I say ‘nuclear’ what do you think of?

    Let me begin.. Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Cold War, Fukishima, Iran, proliferation, apocalypse, meltdown, radioactive.
    Not great..

    So – we’ve got some bad connotations that we need to overcome to start with.
    That in itself isn’t the end of the world. (sorry, need to snap out of this word association game!)

    I’d argue that an even bigger challenge is educating society about energy generally and making the community more energy literate.
    As I said, I spend my day talking to people about solar electricity. I’m often staggered at how little otherwise well educated people know about where their energy comes from, how it’s made, and how much of the stuff they use.
    If you were to ask the average person in the street how many kilowatt hours of electricity they use in their home each day, I’d wager that 1 in 100 would be able to do so. If you were to ask people to name and point out on a map, the coal fired power stations where the bulk of their energy comes from, the number would be smaller still.
    That’s no slight on these people. It’s just that the provision of relatively inexpensive, inexhaustible and reliable electricity is taken completely for granted.

    I met the Energy minister recently. His view of the job was wonderfully uncomplicated. He told me that his job was to ‘keep the lights on’. And yes, I guess that’s a fair enough approach to take to energy security, but it doesn’t engender in the average Joe where all that electricity comes from – and the consequences for how it’s produced.

    Some years ago I spent a fair bit of time in India. The electricity infrastructure in that country is woefully unreliable and because the lights do go out with monotonous regularity, the average ‘Joe’ in India has a pretty good idea as to where his energy comes from and treats it with the respect it deserves. Similarly, energy consciousness in the UK and France where I also lived for a while, is a lot higher than it is in Australia. UK households pay a lot more for energy than we do and probably unsurprisingly, people are more aware of their energy usage. The notion of ‘energy poverty’ is well established in the UK and is reported on frequently in the news media. Energy poverty is where a household spends more than 10% of its income on energy (of which a large component is the cost of heating). In the 5 years from 2003, 2.8million households fell into energy poverty bringing the total number of homes in Britain paying more than 10% of their income just for energy to power and heat their homes, to 4 million. I’d argue that with cost, comes consciousness, and that the steep rise in energy prices here, will ultimately act as a catalyst for a sensible discussion about how we keep the lights on – and hopefully how we save the planet from overheating at the same time.

    The negative connotations people have about Nuclear need to be overcome. But a much more fundamental change – an increase in energy literacy, may be what we need to get the conversation started in a meaningful way.

    1. Dear Patrick,

      Energy literacy is indeed a large and unwieldy topic. It is clearly not incumbent upon those within the energy industry to educate the public beyond the needs of promoting their own industry and or company. Modern day capitalism does not operate in this fashion. This is where universities and the education sector come in to play. No doubt what you say about prices forcing an interest in the issue is true, but until we can cut through all of the propaganda and spin coming from competing market forces, little traction will be achieved. It is encouraging to recognise that more and more people are becoming aware to the “green washing” phenomena and starting to exercise educated choices about their consuming habits, including electricity.

    2. Patrick:

      There is a good reason why I have been using the words “atomic” and “fission” far more frequently than “nuclear” for many years. (I founded Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. in 1993 and started publishing Atomic Insights in 1995.)

      One of the neat things about “fission” is that at least half of the people I talk to think I am referring to that really cool unobtainium – fusion – that has been so well promoted but which is so far into the future that it is not worth my time. After I describe what fission can really do, compared to what they have been told about the limits of nuclear power, they are pretty stoked.

      For example, everyone “knows” that nuclear power plants are huge, central station plants that cannot respond to variations in load and that require massive support from the grid in order to work. I tell them all about the fission power plants that I used to operate thousands of miles from the nearest grid that could change power from 0% to 100% in about 60 seconds and that could power a 9,000 ton ship for 14 years on a load of fuel that weighs a little more than my own body weight.

      Your comments about energy literacy are right on, but I do not believe they will be altered by education. They may be altered by sustained advertising campaigns designed by skilled marketers.

      Please take no offense, but a world that can be convinced that solar energy can be made into a reliable power source should definitely be able to be convinced to take another look at uranium and thorium with their 2 million times improvement in energy density over oil and their ability to produce reliable heat without any air pollution or CO2 at all.

  4. Good post. You raised a valid point on the real need for nuclear education in Australia, especially for laypersons (which includes me). I think the CSG extraction debate bears some similarities. As someone who works alongside this industry, discussion with its professionals gives an accurate, first-hand awareness to real risks – many of which are wildly over exaggerated by the press. Knowledge is indeed power.

  5. The aspect that you have missed is the fact that nuclear energy is threatening to the wealth and power of one of Australia’s strongest industries – the coal and natural gas extraction business. If they allowed nuclear energy to be rationally discussed, they would have to start explaining to people why it is better to keep selling hundreds of millions of tons of coal each year instead of tens of thousands of pounds of uranium.

    They would have to explain why people should be willing to pay $3 to $45 per million BTU for raw fossil fuels in bulk when their proxies at commercial power stations can purchase refined commercial nuclear fuel that produces no emissions of CO2 for just 65 cents per million BTU. (Those figures are in US dollars, but the current conversion between US and Australian dollars means that they are within 10% of the figures down under.)

    I try hard not to talk past anyone. I realize that many people do not have the time or the energy to dig deeply into nuclear technology; they are simply repeating what they have heard from the advertiser supported media for many decades.

    Here is a link to one direct example of how those ads portray nuclear, but the real impact has come from ads and stories that appear unrelated to ads that carry the same underlying message.

    http://atomicinsights.com/2011/08/decarbonise-south-australia-and-brave-new-climate-visit-the-atomic-show.html/anti-nuclear_coal_ad_md

    1. Dear Mr Adams,

      Having not done much research into the linguistic terms around this issue I can only note that it is probably like many aspects of our modern society and subject to heavy amounts of spin. As to whether there is a conspiracy of silence and an active gagging of the issue created by the edicts of the multinational coal companies, here too I am not qualified to comment. It does not sound spurious to suggest it could be occurring, as all companies will try to protect their markets.

      1. Rachel – As you note, all enterprises seek to protect their markets and they do whatever they can to steadily grow their revenues. In the commodity fuels business – coal, oil, natural gas, biofuels – the effort is to both increase the unit volume and to increase the sales price for each unit.

        As the hydrocarbon age continues, the cost of extracting each unit of material gradually increases since the easiest resources were the largest reservoirs that happened to be the easiest to find and to get out of the ground. As companies have to work harder to produce the next unit of fuel (on average) the selling price has to increase in order to allow an increase in profits.

        That is why I call uranium and thorium fission an existential threat to the fossil fuel industry – our fuel is essentially untapped. It is also very easy to find – it sends out little signals with enough regularity for setting clocks.

        In my analysis of the history of atomic energy, I have found that the fossil fuel folks have always known that fission is an essentially unlimited energy source. In the early days, many of the multinationals tried to apply the lessons they had learned in hydrocarbons in an attempt to dominate the business, but their lessons did not translate very well to a technology where fuel and material movement is a minor portion of the overall revenue streams.

        They then moved toward the tactic of doing everything they could think of to increase the cost of using nuclear energy and to increase customer reluctance to accept it. One of the long standing tactics, which needs no coordination, is spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about their powerful but immature competitor.

      2. From my point of view, back when my position was still forming, perhaps one of the greatest lightbulb moments was realising once and for all that renewables and nuclear are simply not in competition, the competition was renewables and fossil. From there it was, frankly, intellectually relatively easy because fossil is just so bad for us in comparison. My original presentation runs this thread throughout. I would hope that we can get this across effectively to more people, which is why it is great to see the likes of Patrick commenting as he does, demonstrating that supporting development and deployment of renewable technologies does not demand an anti-nuclear stance at the same time.

        Some good news, you will note in the top right box that I have many presentation lined up. Newly added today is a session with the very highly regarded Governor’s Leadership Foundation here in South Australia. 15 mins of me talking, and then a full hour of Q and A with some really smart people with leadership in their future.

    2. I think the greatest sword the coal lobby wields is the jobs they provide through their supply chains, the royalties paid to state governments and the export revenues derived.

      All this is absolutely true. So for a politician to countenance “losing” this when it is so simple to lose nothing by doing nothing when it comes to nuclear – well thats a lot of inertia to overcome.

      This is especially so with the 30 years or so of negative branding for “nuclear”.

      I think we have to keep clearly debating the nuclear free Germany myth, the Spain solar myth and other fanciful projects which anti nukes keep bringing up as exemplars. My understanding is, they will not stand up to critical scrutiny and have had some nasty unintended economic consequences. I feel this might be a good focus for future work. So far, the antinukes have made a lot of hay from these projects

      1. Re the jobs etc, yes that’s a curly one for Australia. It’s an easy case to make that the nation would run better on nuclear. That’s the nature of superior technology. But superior technologies do always also leave collateral damage in their wake, and in our case, in this case, the damage would perhaps be high.

        Of course, it would not happen all at once. It will take some time, time enough for structural adjustment which NEEDS TO HAPPEN ANYWAY if we are at all serious about decarbonising. We need to present the case: Open up the playing field to nuclear, let the best technology win, and support those workers on the losing end into new lives. Hell, maybe some of the MEGA profits of Australian coal might be diverted to supporting their workers through a tough period that everyone can see coming. God only knows they are investing f*ck all in clean coal R&D to give their workers a future, I expect they have some spare.

      2. Dear Mr O (aka Mark),

        The point you bring up about jobs and how they become involved in the green wash spin cycle is very pertinent at the moment. I say this in light of the job losses that the car industry, and the Alcoa aluminum smelter has presented recently. The Australian federal governments response promotes a so called “new green economy”, but they also want to save a lot of jobs in the manufacturing industries. This seems to be trying to walk on both sides of the street in terms of policy formation. On the one hand we are going to subsidise these very high carbon emission industries, and on the other we are going to subsidise the formation of greener industries. The one policy direction cancels out the other.

        How does this relate to nuclear policy direction? It doesn’t directly, other than to remind us that within the energy policy field there are many contradictions. Until politicians are willing to pursue these issues relentlessly and with a single mindedness of what the clear goals should be ie security of energy supply in addition to lowering of greenhouse gas emissions achievable viable outcomes will remain out of reach. As I outlined in my article they are unwilling to do this until there is some perceived pronuclear support within the community. So on a practical level what we can do as a community is actively try to discuss the merits of nuclear in a clear, non jargonistic way and at least argue for its placement on the table as an option that should not be dismissed out of hand.

  6. The bit that really took me from this article was this:

    “I do however find it curious that the Grattan Institute omits discussion of this form of energy with its dealings with the media. ”

    I attended a discussion on the Draft Energy White Paper just a couple of days ago chaired by Ian Stirling of Electranet, the body responsible for South Australia’s transmission infrastructure. Ian was just completely clear and upfront about the role of nuclear and the fact that we need to incorporate it into our decision making mix. This was SO REFRESHING, because I think Rachel is right, even those who actually have an informed position that supports a role for nuclear will then tend to shy away or act in an apologetic fashion about it. This of course gets us nowhere. We need more people to be clear, unapologetic and frequent in public positions of support for the use of nuclear power.

    I have caused people I had not met before to squirm at a BBQ. I didn’t mean it, I was just telling them honestly what I had been up to over the last couple of days. It’s a weird feeling.

    1. I wonder if Electranet are able to speak more freely than AEMO. We recall the latter’s SASDO2011 report which failed to mention nuclear once but extolled geothermal in the Simpson Desert. I’d like to see some discussion papers from Electranet but I believe there is just one so far.

      1. Dear John,

        I believe the current legal situation in Australia, where the development of any sort of Nuclear energy production is illegal probably preempts any serious discussion for many companies and organisations. It is catagorised as being off the table fairly early on as a viable energy option. It is an interesting catch 22 situation to be caught in.

  7. I think you are definitely correct when you point out that politicians are afraid to bring it up….I have discussed it with at least one politician who said that privately most in his party are in support of nuclear, or at the very least in discussing it, but none of them are coming forward….nobody wants to be first.
    One article I would highly recommend reading (the description of the two types of environmentalists made me think of it) relates to the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight….I have regularly found myself guilty of the kind of thinking it describes, but it is something I now try and be more aware of, and make others aware of too….
    http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/08/21/the-illusion-of-asymmetric-insight/

  8. Thanks Rachel, a thoughtful post which also happens to have stimuated a lot of interesting discussion.

    Everyone who writes, reads or comments on a blog such as this knows a plethora of facts regarding our various energy options, but as Rachel points out it’s mostly just uninteresting mumbo jumbo for anyone else.

    I think what is important now is that we learn how to distil this deep knowledge into, easy to remember, core facts and think hard about the best way to relay these basic facts to the general public. As discussed on DSA before, one of the first steps towards achieving this aim must be to realise that sometimes peoples ability to accept and retain information has more to do with the way people think than with the strength of the facts themselves. On that note, a thankyou to Cerebus too – terrific link.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s