Gone Nuclear Fishing

With the nuclear Royal Commission, the South Australian Government has unexpectedly opened up a debate about our role in the nuclear fuel cycle.

The last Royal Commission in South Australia to shape our energy future was that established by Tom Playford in 1945. It led to the nationalisation of our electricity industry. Playford had run out of patience with the privately run Adelaide Electric Supply Company (AESC), which, among other objectionable things, was paying excessive dividends to its shareholders. He established a Royal Commission into the AESC and appointed SA Auditor General JW Wainwright to it. Wainwright understood that the industry needed to be harnessed for the benefit of the state’s social and economic development. His premier agreed. The rest is history. Half a century later we have another Royal Commission that many see as fundamental to shaping South Australia’s and, indeed the nation’s, energy policy. The South Australian Government has unexpectedly opened up a debate about our role in the nuclear fuel cycle. Old opponents of a nuclear industry have changed their positions and are open to local storage of waste and enrichment. Others are evangelistic about the development of a nuclear energy industry in Australia, offering it up as the only realistic solution to greenhouse gas reduction. Some no doubt see nuclear openness as a key to unlocking the stalled Olympic Dam expansion project, offering some form of economic salvation in the face of the collapse of our automotive manufacturing industry. Cold War warriors on both sides of the political fence will slug it out ‘til exhaustion. Others will watch on in despair fearing that Nero is fiddling while Rome burns. The Commission will be presented with an avalanche of strongly held and passionately argued views. My own position at the outset is that it is not possible to examine the nuclear fuel cycle, and all that the nuclear industry entails, without detailed comparisons with the range of alternatives that are available to us in tackling climate change and building an energy industry for the future. Fair comparisons need to be commissioned and sought from a wide range of experts and subject to peer assessment. A citizens’ jury could be presented with the evidence to form another step in the advisory chain. I am willing to listen to all sides of the debate while maintaining the highest levels of scepticism along the way. I need to be convinced, however, that Australia’s deeper participation in the nuclear fuel cycle is a superior journey to the alternatives available to us – particularly advanced solar thermal and energy storage technologies. Safety concerns and proliferation risks need to be honestly addressed. Other parts of the world might require other energy mixes, dictated by local realities and natural advantages but our position need not be dictated by what might be best applied in other nations to bring about sustainable reductions in greenhouse gases. There are vested interests wherever you turn in the energy industry. Great riches are to be earned, great power to be gained from advancing one energy source over another. It is always good to ask who the winners and the losers are likely to be from the alternatives being advanced. The Royal Commission into the nuclear industry, like its predecessor in 1945, is not a blank canvas. It is founded on a view, held by a group of influential and respected South Australians that the state should be involved more fully in the nuclear industry, though just how fully varies enormously from individual to individual. If the Royal Commission is a vehicle for their views alone it will be a failure. If it takes seriously those who advocate concerns and alternatives, it will have a much greater chance of informing our future energy policy. Recall the 1945 Commission, which led to the nationalisation of the electricity industry in South Australia. The legislation passed with just one vote, a renegade Liberal vote actually. This new Royal Commission will be full of twists and turns as it grapples with a topic rich in complexity and controversy. Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, a former Governor who commands great respect in the community, heads up the Royal Commission. A masterstroke of an appointment by the Premier. While Scarce said he had no preconceived views about outcomes from the Commission, he is on the record as having said “Why we haven’t looked at the nuclear option more systematically I will never understand” at an SA Chamber of Mines and Energy event in December last year. We all have our starting points. With this in mind it would be best to gather some diversity around the Commission to ensure that entrenched views are challenged on both sides. We can be confident that the Commissioner will listen to all views but we need to ensure that the loudest and most well-resourced voices don’t drown out a robust debate about the alternatives available to us. Bring on a healthy debate. @JohnSpoehr

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