We Need to keep an open mind about nuclear energy

It’s been more than 70 years since United States President Harry Truman signed into law the Atomic Energy Act in 1946 as a clear signal to examine the peaceful application of nuclear technology. 

In that time, while Australia has endured countless and highly contested public debates over energy policy, its parliament has never undertaken an inquiry into the potential for nuclear energy until now. 

It will be the job of the Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy to inquire into this topic with dispassionate independence and a focus on evidence and fact over ideology and emotion. 

The committee, with myself as Chair, Deputy Chair Josh Wilson and six other MPs representing the Government, the Opposition and the Cross Bench, shall determine the circumstances under which a future Coalition or Labor Government might consider nuclear energy generation in Australia. 

This requires us to answer two threshold questions – one, is nuclear energy feasible and two, is it suitable? 

To be feasible, nuclear energy would have to stack up on economic, technological and capability grounds. 

To be suitable, it would need to make sense on environmental, safety and security grounds. 

I won’t and can’t pre-empt the Inquiry’s conclusions and nor will I endorse a particular outcome or technology before the Inquiry runs its course. 

But I can speak openly about the possibilities and challenges associated with nuclear energy. 

Advances in safer technology and the contribution it could make to reducing carbon emissions as well as its cost and commercialisation must be examined. 

Beyond these substantive considerations lies another issue – that is, public perception and people’s appetite for nuclear energy. 

While this Inquiry will see lobby groups raise the volume on the pros and cons of nuclear energy, my hope is that deliberative and thoughtful dialogue ensues rather than a shouting match and a contest of cheap scare tactics. 

Nuclear energy presents a rare opportunity for sensible debate because it doesn’t fit neatly into the usual left-verses-right narrative and it defies the binary choice that has sadly emerged in the energy debate over recent years between fossil fuels and renewables. 

Neither the Liberal National Coalition nor the Labor Party can claim ownership of the idea of nuclear energy in Australia as both have had Prime Ministers for and against its possible introduction in Australia. 

Nuclear energy also breaks the political mould in countries where it’s already a mature source of energy such as the United States where environmental groups like The Union of Concerned Scientists are now open minded about its use due to its environmental value. 

It’s no secret that environmentalists have historically been opposed to nuclear energy but their warnings of the threat of climate change and demands to decarbonise the economy also requires new light to be shed on this low-emissions energy source. 

Does this mean an Inquiry into nuclear energy will see the far right and the far left suddenly become odd bedfellows? Don’t hold your breath. 

But it does open the possibility of a public debate that smashes the old left-right paradigm and paves the way for a more informative discussion. Here’s hoping. 

Ted O’Brien is the Member for Fairfax and Chair of Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy in the Australian Commonwealth Parliament. 

 

Nuclear Inquiry Op Ed - Ted O'Brien MP

As seen in The Courier Mail, Monday 12 August 2019