Guest post by John Morgan. John has a PhD in physical chemistry, and research experience in chemical engineering in the US and at CSIRO.

John Morgan

I’ve just returned from the IQ2 debate hosted by the St James Ethics Centre in Sydney, contesting the proposition “We’ve seen the energy future, and it’s nuclear”, where the civilities were opened by Ben Heard speaking for the proposal.  It was a great night, and I wanted to recount some of the discussion and audience reaction here, and some of my own thoughts.  The debate was recorded and will later be available in both audio and video in the ABCs Big Ideas series.

The St James Ethics Centre is currently running an online poll on this topic and you may wish to register your own position here

 The Audience

As I entered the venue I was polled for my position on the topic.  Before the speakers were heard, the audience broke out in an almost perfect 35% / 31% /34% split between those for, against and undecided.  The audience was reported by organisers as about 1,000.

To compare this to the population at large, before Fukushima the split was 49% for, 43% against and 7% undecided. []  Several months after the Fukushima disaster, this was 62% against with 35% for.  []

The audience skewed older.  I would guess the median might have been in the 50-60 range, but with all ages present.

The Speakers

Simon Longstaff, the Director of the St James Ethics Centre, MC’d the event.

Ben Heard. This bloke should get out more.  Seriously, he’s that good.  As an interstate interloper to this website you South Australians are lucky to have him.  Ben opened the debate with a very clear, crisp and powerful entreaty to deploy nuclear power as the necessary missing link in our zero emissions toolkit.  He spoke about his journey from anti- to pro- nuclear, the Integral Fast Reactor, the safety of nuclear power, and the seriousness of the climate change disaster we are looking at, making the point that this is really a choice about survival.  His message was clear and simple and cut through.

Fumihiko Yoshida.  The first speaker against was a journalist on the editorial board of Asahi Shimbun, the major Japanese daily newspaper.  He told a heartwrenching tale of a lady from Fukushima who suicided from the emotional distress of the nuclear event.  My own response was that he was not describing a nuclear tragedy, but instead the tragedy of fear and stigma that is  the result of misguided radiophobia.

Michael Angwin, CEO of the Australian Uranium Association, followed Yoshida by setting the Fukushima tragedy in the context of the desire for economic development and growth that nuclear power satisfies.  This did not resonate with me and I wondered how the audience would react.  I think the more effective counter to Yoshida would have been to point out he had not described tragic consequences caused by the nuclear disaster but rather by the ill-founded fears fanned by hysterical responses to the disaster.

Dominique La Fontaine is VP of Communications with Repower Australia and formerly CEO of the Australian Wind Energy Association.  She told us nice stories of a future of renewable energy and distributed power generation.  She does not have an engineering background but has met many engineers who have told her that renewable energy can completely power Australia.  I did not find her convincing but imagine others might.

What grabbed me throughout her argument was her constant reference to “renewables and gas”.  “Renewables with gas.”  “Renewables plus gas.”  I was honestly surprised that she exposed her argument to the criticism that a renewable future is a gas future.  Ben picked up on this, counting I think six such conflations, and he hammered her on it later in the proceedings.

The key insight is this:  If La Fontaine, in a series of high profile communication roles in renewable energy lobby organizations, is apparently not sensitive to the gas Achilles heel of the renewables response to climate change, then the public at large also does not understand this.  Therefore an important part of our communication should be to emphasize the reliance of renewable energy on available fossil gas.

Daniela Stehlik is a sociologist, and directed the 2009 project Understanding the Formation of Attitudes to Nuclear Power in Australia.  She focussed on the need for Australians to understand our energy systems options as integrated systems, and to be aware of the tradeoffs we make when choosing between options.  She discussed the loss of quality farmland to gas fracking as a consequence of the avoidance of nuclear power, and called for an education programme so Australians are better informed about our energy choices and consequences.

Ian Lowe, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, made the closing argument.  Ian is a great speaker – animated, witty and he connected well with the crowd.  But as Michael Angwin picked up, he did not really prosecute an argument to support his case. He waved a yellowed copy of the 1976 Ranger Uranium Enquiry about, saying we should not pursue nuclear until we can address its chief concerns of waste disposal and weapons proliferation.  He was, strangely for an educator, very cynical about Stehlik’s desire for better education, and perhaps for good reason.  I shall have some more to say on these remarks below.

Audience questions

Audience members were invited to engage either panel with their observations and challenges.  There were an equal number of questions from the floor for both sides of the debate.

Goronwy Price (Vice President of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy Australia) asked Ian Lowe, if he were the President of Japan, would he turn their reactors back on, given the looming energy gap.  Ian responded by quoting a politician: “That is a serious question that demands sophisticated evasion”, and then went on, without apparent irony, to evade the question in a sophisticated fashion by deploying H. L. Mencken’s aphorism, “For every complex question there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Lowe suggested nuclear power was the simple, wrong answer to this complex question.  Ben jumped right on this saying that it actually was as simple as it seemed – that Japanese emissions would rise dramatically unless the reactors were restarted.

Two electrical engineers rose to challenge the viability of renewable energy.  The first was a young fellow who had done a Masters thesis on distributed renewable energy generation.  His research led him to the conclusion that it wasn’t feasible.  The second talked about the massive transmission infrastructure that would need to be developed and its ecological impact.

I directed a last question to those against: “Given that the rate at which we decarbonise determines the amount of warming we will ultimately experience, and given that we can decarbonise faster with renewable energy and nuclear power than with renewable energy alone, how many degrees of planetary warming do you believe it is worth to avoid the use of nuclear power?”

I had hoped for (though had no expectation of) an answer with units of degrees Celsius, to focus on the ethical dimension of this tradeoff, and Simon Longstaff obviously picked up on this as he relayed the question to Lowe.  Lowe unfortunately dodged this element by rephrasing the question as “Do we need both renewables and nuclear”.  His conclusion, obviously, was that we don’t, though for reasons I no longer recall.

The result

The audience was again polled on their position at the end of the debate.  This time the figures came in as 51% for, 32% against, and 17% undecided.






This is an outstanding result!  To achieve such a large shift on a contentious topic seems to me remarkable.  It demonstrates that this issue can be won, and that even the briefest exposure to some simple, clear discussion can change people’s minds.  Well done Ben, Michael and Daniela!

The simplest and probably the correct reading of the dynamics is that, to a first approximation, those who oppose nuclear power by and large did not change their minds, but that half of those who were undecided before the debate became supporters.  There was no movement of the undecideds towards the anti- camp – the speakers against the proposal won no converts on the evening.

This shows the real reason for Ian Lowe’s strange rejection of education – the more people know about climate change, energy, and the whole related social milieu, the more disposed toward nuclear power they become.

Above all else, this result shows just how effective even a short exposure to simple argument can be in this debate.  There is a lot of low hanging fruit, and huge payoffs to be had from even a little information.

Perhaps the outstanding reaction of the night was this tweet:

Education and ethics

I want to return to Ian Lowe’s odd response to Stehlik’s call for better education.  Ian did not want to see an education programme on energy issues.  He remarked that education is an irregular verb, conjugating it thus: “I educate, you propagandize, he brainwashes”.

This is a remarkably cynical view of education from an emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society and former Director of the Australian Commission for the Future.  What alternative would he prefer – less education, less informed decisions?  We seem to have an educator and a futurist who has abandoned both education and the future.

Ian elaborated on his point. I paraphrase: “Scientists and technologists seem to think better education will lead to more support for technologies.  In fact it often leads to less support.  The more people learn about genetic modification or nuclear power the less they want it.”

In some respects he is right.  I have seen many individuals with technical backgrounds reject many manifestations of technology.  I also do not think we necessarily need more education in, say, physics (though it wouldn’t hurt!).  Everyone is different and what floats my boat may sink someone elses.

But we do need more education.  What we need education in is ethics.  It is significant that this debate took place in the St James Centre for Ethics, because this energy argument is an argument of ethics.

The fundamental ethical question is, What should we do? We have choices to make around energy and climate, and we need a way to choose what to do.  To make the right choice we need a base of well established knowledge.  Epistemology is the branch of ethics that asks us how do we know what we know? , and then gives us the tools to answer.  Critical thinking is an applied technology of epistemology.  Utilitarianism invites us to make our choices according to the actual outcomes that they will have in the world.  It leads us to weigh our choices objectively, as when I asked Lowe how much extra warming he was prepared to accept to avoid nuclear power.

An ethical choice requires the virtue of integrity, in particular integrity towards the knowledge gained from a sound epistemological basis, even if it is confronting. This kind of integrity is the chief virtue of the scientist.  It is the value that the mechanism of peer review was established to protect.  We do not need to educate people so much in the scientific disciplines as in this kind of scientific integrity.

And finally, an ethical choice requires courage, perhaps to change our minds, or to act in spite of others expectations, and to choose to be responsible for choices that we make and accountable for their outcomes.

So along with the speakers I would also like to congratulate the St James Centre for Ethics for taking on this debate and placing it in its proper context – a debate on ethics, not technologies.

Choose wisely.


  1. I was a bit surprised at the poll as the debate seemed set up to go the other way. That point should be made more often …that gas is the enabler for wind and solar which will struggle when gas is no longer cheap or we need deeper CO2 cuts. I’m also pleased that anti-nukes are losing the moral high ground that has helped launch their guilt trips on the rest of us.

  2. 573 certified deaths were due to evacuation-related stress at Fukushima. Zero due to radiation. February 4, 2012

    “Japanese authorities recognize 573 deaths related to Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Catastrophe
    As reported by the Yomiuri Shimbun:
    “A total of 573 deaths have been certified as “disaster-related” by 13 municipalities affected by the crisis at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant….
    A disaster-related death certificate is issued when a death is not directly caused by a tragedy, but by fatigue or the aggravation of a chronic disease due to the disaster. ….””

    ZERO deaths were caused by radiation. 573 deaths were caused by the evacuation that was forced by officials. The people who died were evacuated from such things as intensive care. They might have survived if the evacuation had not taken place. Fukushima’s natural background radiation is still higher than the radiation from the reactor leak. Fukushima’s natural background radiation plus the radiation from the reactor leak is still less than the natural background radiation here in Illinois. Natural background radiation varies greatly from place to place. Our background radiation is around 350 milli rem/year.
    “milli” means “.001”
    350 milli rem/year means 0.350 rem/year
    1 rem = 10 millisievert
    People living in Ramsar, Iran have a background radiation of 10 to 20 rems/year and report no ill effects.

  3. Coal contains: URANIUM and all of the decay products of uranium, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, THORIUM, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc. There is so much of these elements in coal that cinders and coal smoke are actually valuable ores. We should be able to get ALL THE URANIUM AND THORIUM WE NEED TO FUEL NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS FOR CENTURIES BY USING COAL CINDERS AND SMOKE AS ORE. Unburned Coal and crude oil also contain
    BENZENE, THE CANCER CAUSER. We could get all of our uranium and thorium from coal ashes and cinders. The carbon content of coal ranges from 96% down to 25%, the remainder being rock of various kinds.
    If you are an underground coal miner, you may be in violation of the rules for radiation workers. The uranium decay chain includes the radioactive gas RADON, which you are breathing. Radon decays in about a day into polonium, the super-poison.

    Chinese industrial grade coal is sometimes stolen by peasants for cooking. The result is that the whole family dies of arsenic poisoning in days, not years because Chinese industrial grade coal contains large amounts of arsenic.

    Yes, that ARSENIC is getting into the air you breathe, the water you drink and the soil your food grows in. So are all of those other heavy metal poisons. Your health would be a lot better without coal. Benzene is also found in petroleum. If you have cancer, check for benzene in your past.
    in case the ORNL site does not work.

    Make coal fired power plants meet the same requirements on radiation release that nuclear power plants have to meet.

  4. I’m happy to see that this event went off so well.Many thanks to those involved on the pro side.

    The behaviour of Ian Lowe doesn’t surprise me.I’ve witnessed him speak on several occasions.Did he use the old chestnut “If nuclear power is the answer then it was a bloody silly question”?

    I am mystified as to the motives for his behaviour,especially as he holds a responsible academic position at Griffith University in Queensland,my home state. He appears to have an attitude resembling that of climate change deniers. Maybe it’s no accident that Professor Carter works in Queensland as well.

    Of course,Queensland is ground zero for the fossil fuel industry,coal and CSG. Maybe there is black money involved in the positions of both Lowe and Carter?

  5. Re the reported views of Daniela Stehlik – there is a combined solar thermal/CSG plant called Solar Dawn proposed for Chinchilla,West of Brisbane.It is an area of prime farmland which is being badly affected by CSG exploration and mining.

    The federal government is the major donor for this $1.2 billion project with construction expected to start in 2013. The Queensland government was supposed to pony up $75 million but has now withdrawn,ostensibly because the government owned electricity distributor for most of QLD outside the South East,Ergon Energy,can’t reach agreement with Solar Dawn on payment rates for the electricity produced.

    It is more likely that this is just an excuse. The recently elected LNP government has found a huge black hole where Queenslands finances were supposed to be,thanks to Labor mismangement.It will be interesting to see if Martin Ferguson will step in with extra sponsorship to ensure the project goes ahead.

    In any case,Solar Dawn is merely a huge waste of resources which will do next to nothing to reduce carbon emissions.

  6. John, thanks for the descriptive and thoughtful write-up. It sounds like it was both gob smacking (Renewables plus gas?? No education is better??) and satisfying (the final pro-nuclear swing in polling)

    I think you’re right regarding a need for integrity in our discussions and decision making. I remember arguing once, with a friend of mine, that much of the information in a report she’d just read was cherry picked and distorted. Much to my surprise she answered “So what? That’s what everyone does.”! As the ‘discussion’ continued I began to realise that, to her, the strength of an argument lay not in it’s veracity per se but in it’s persuasiveness. An example of a persuasive argument, from her point of view, might be the kind a lawyer would make on behalf of this client. A lawyer (arguably) wins by cherry picking and promoting the evidence that is most favourable to his clients case and ignoring or casting doubt on any evidence that is unfavourable. The weight of the evidence is less important than it’s clever presentation.

    If persuasiveness is allowed to be our highest measure of a well-made argument (as opposed to evidence bound truthfulness) then one’s opponent could win their case simply by making stuff up. Certainly exposing their untruthfulness will make ones evidence based argument all the more persuasive but this is nothing more than a clever debating tactic – there is always the possibility that one will be unable to adequately unveil their deception in which case their persuasiveness wins out over our evidence, the audience/world gets cheated and the truth/planet loses.

    More people (be they speaker or listener) need to know how important it is to discern the difference between the charismatic delivery of weak assertions, and an argument based on well weighted evidence. In short, some people, like my friend, need to be taught what intergrity looks like.

  7. G’Day Ben,
    Great effort Ben in Sydney. Good to see that a majority [just] in Sydney are in favour of nuclear. I think miners are allowed to look for uranium in NSW now so they’re starting to get the message in the Premier state. I reckon SA would also be in favour. I’m speaking to Adelaide and Gawler Rotary clubs in September and I’ve just returned from Sydney where I recorded my third Ockham;’s Razor talk on nuclear waste disposal. It’ll go to air later this year. I had a chat to my local Federal member yesterday- he’s in favour but like all politicians, is a bit timid when it comes to talking up difficult issues. I’ll keep at him though. Keep up the good work Ben.

    1. Cheers Terry, it really was quite a night. Well done on you own efforts, and please let me know when the Ockham’s Razor talk is available so I can post and Tweet a link.

      My challenge moving forward is: How do we hold on to those we convince? In terms of maintaining contact? It’s a high tech world, but not everyone is constantly on line…

  8. I co-taught a six-weekend nuclear energy class for science teachers in 1986-87 at Case-Western reserve University. We had about 60 teachers go through the class. We polled them before and after the class. It was about 50% for, 40% against, and 10% undecided before the class. The “exit poll” was 97% for and 3% against, with no undecided. Unfortunately the company funding the class pulled out because my co-teacher (Chair of the Applied Physics dept.) was a member of the Union for Concerned Scientists. Regardless, teaching the teachers appeared to be the way to go. Maybe that’s why Lowe was anti-education?

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