The Guardian 14 March, 2007

Switkowski promotes
the nuke "solution"

Peter Mac

Applauding the supposed advantages of nuclear power, former Telstra boss Ziggy Switkowski has suggested that the Howard Government will soon put a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Zwitkowski headed the committee which recently recommended Australia generating electricity by nuclear power. Last week he declared: "Once carbon dioxide emissions are costed and … people make a decision they really do want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then the only alternative which is cost-competitive, clean and safe … is nuclear power."

Clean and safe! Apart from conceding patronisingly that nuclear waste storage was an "emotional" issue, and his absurd implication that the Australian people can’t make up their minds as to whether greenhouse gas emissions should be cut, Switkowski ignored the huge hazards of nuclear power generation.

In contrast, one leading Chinese nuclear scientist recently stated bluntly that nuclear power involved great hazards, and that Australia should not develop a nuclear industry because of the enormous expense.

For a nuclear physicist, Zwitkowski’s approach seems remarkably unscientific. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, he dismissed renewable energy as unreliable and inadequate to meet Australia’s power needs. He conceded that establishing nuclear power would take 15 years and involve enormous expense. Nevertheless, he claimed that new technology would soon make long-term storage of nuclear waste feasible — as if this was all that mattered, even assuming it was true.

In point of fact, rapid advances are already being made in renewable energy power generation. The company Origin Energy has built a pilot plant to produce the new "sliver" solar cells, which produce energy far more efficiently than the currently-available photovoltaic cells. This will reduce the cost of solar energy production below that of coal-fired power plants, bringing the installation of domestic solar power facilities easily within the financial reach of many Australian families.

The NSW town of Bourke also plans to build a wind-farm to supply its power needs. It will join Moree and Mildura, which are installing solar power plants, as renewable energy centres.

Notwithstanding its flaws, Zwitkowski’s statement is in some respects highly significant. Last year, for the first, time John Howard began to seriously discuss introducing a carbon trading scheme. However, representatives of the coal industry subsequently expressed bitter opposition, and Howard has remained largely silent on the issue since then.

Echoing Howard’s argument for not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, one industry spokesperson commented that a carbon scheme should only be introduced if all the world’s nations agreed to do so. He even suggested that if such a scheme were introduced, the coal industry should be exempted, presumably because of its economic importance. It is entirely possible that the Howard Government might do just that, given its tendency to dance to the industry’s tune.

Zwitkowski’s declaration that "clean coal" technology would take 20 or 30 years to implement is a cogent point. Britain’s Stern Report, released last year, concluded that cuts in emissions have to commence immediately, with major cuts within ten years. There is little chance of that happening under a Coalition Government, because of its intransigent support for the coal and uranium mining industries. But cheer up! His advocacy of nuclear power will be one major reason for his government — and perhaps he himself — failing in the federal election poll later this year.

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