Late February three wealthy business leaders with close Liberal Party connections — Robert de Crespigny, Ron Walker and Hugh Morgan — announced the formation of Australian Nuclear Energy to develop nuclear power generation. Prime Minister John Howard praised the initiative as "a great idea".
Why would these business magnates, and their political mates, be moving to plant a string of nukes around our coast? It's not as though the safety issues surrounding nuclear power have suddenly been resolved. Nor is it because nuclear power represents an attractive economic option. Even the most modern nukes are likely to produce power at a cost at least 50% higher than that of Australia's prime renewable resource, "hot dry rock" geothermal energy.
Those pushing nuclear power aren't out to do the public a service. They undoubtedly count on receiving handsome profits — not because nuclear power is competitive, but because the nuclear industry around the world has, notoriously, been able to prise subsidies out of the public purse.
Most crucially, the building of nuclear power plants would set in place a key element in a broader scheme that with all its dangers, promises vast profits to Australia's business elite. That scheme is the creation of an integrated Australian nuclear industry, extending from uranium mining all the way through to repositories for storing the world's nuclear waste.
Backed by a powerful alliance of corporate, political, bureaucratic and military interests, an integrated Australian nuclear industry would be a cousin to the rapacious US military-industrial complex. Focused on export earnings, the nuclear industry would become a pillar of Australia's balance of payments. The need to support it would be cited endlessly as essential to national wellbeing.
Historically, the nuclear industry developed in the US, Britain and France on the basis of just such an alliance between the military, large-scale industry and pro-business politicians and state officials.
The military's "need" for nuclear bombs led to state investments in creating a uranium enrichment industry. The enriched uranium could, of course, be used in nuclear power plants as well as in bombs. And what better way to justify the cost of nuclear weapons than by promising the public cheap electricity?
The power nukes created radioactive waste that required reprocessing. Agreeably enough, this provided the fissile material for yet more bombs.
As the nuclear industry developed, its social, economic and political processes catalysed one another. Nuclear-armed generals gained in prestige and influence. State officials linked to the industry saw their clout multiply. Industrial corporations prospered on fat contracts. All lobbied less-than-skeptical politicians to advance nuclear industry interests, and the public paid for everything.
To believe its proponents, nuclear power — and especially power from modern plants built to standard designs — is cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels, at least when the real costs of carbon-based generation are taken into account.
The trouble is the economic figures for new-generation nukes are highly speculative. It's not as though anyone has ever built, operated and (especially) decommissioned such a plant. Moreover, almost all the quoted figures have their sources in the nuclear industry itself, and the nuclear firms are notorious for citing best-case price scenarios as established fact.
"The UK nuclear industry has systematically underestimated the cost of new nuclear power", reads a 2005 British report from the New Economics Foundation. "More realistic estimates for construction, delays and overruns, the cost of early reactors and actual performance — all push the likely costs of new nuclear power up."
When figures yielded by existing nukes are substituted for the hopeful guesses of the nuclear planners a quite different picture emerges. A 2006 Canadian study provides an example. Conducted for the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, the study observes that if data for the nukes now operating in Ontario are used in the cost calculations, the real price of power from a new CANDU6 nuclear plant comes in at 2.5 times the cost of renewable alternatives, mainly wind power.
New-model nukes might produce electricity more cheaply than the old ones. But we should not expect the quantum-leap increases in cost efficiency needed to make nuclear power a rational economic choice.
All this begs the question: why have private energy corporations ever built nuclear power plants anywhere? The answer is that the well-connected nuclear industry has regularly been able to secure vast government subsidies.
In the first 40 years of operation, one study suggests, commercial nuclear power in the US enjoyed subsidies amounting to some 20% of its spending. "Commercial atomic power has thus far cost [US]$492 billion dollars", a 1992 Greenpeace report states, "[US]$97 billion of which has been in the form of federal subsidies".
The proportion may be considerably higher. More recent studies of US nuclear power spending cite figures for government subsidies as high as US$145 billion.
The founders of Australian Nuclear Energy are shrewd entrepreneurs. If they lend their names and capital to such a venture, it's because they're confident they have the clout to extract corresponding subsidies from governments.
Corporate Australia already has the world's largest uranium mine, and few people expect the Labor Party to resist pressure to allow the mining of dozens of other uranium deposits.
Now the business elite want nuclear power plants, and they haven't rejected the other elements of the nuclear cycle: uranium enrichment; waste reprocessing; and the running of an international repository for high-level waste. There are even people who want an Aussie bomb.
The so-called Switkowski report on nuclear energy, commissioned by the Howard government and released in December 2006, observes that enrichment could quadruple the value of Australia's uranium exports to $2.4 billion a year. While the present commercial prospects for enrichment are seen as unpromising, the report recommends that the government should not discourage development of an enrichment capability if commercial prospects improve.
How better to improve these commercial prospects than to build dozens of Australian nukes by 2050, as the Switkowski report recommends?
With dozens of operating nukes, Australia would have a need for a waste reprocessing industry. Since it is selling uranium abroad, why not improve competitiveness by offering to contract with the foreign customers to take their reactor waste for reprocessing and storage? Indeed, it will be argued, Australia has a responsibility to offer this service. Along with Canada, Australia is the only stable First World country to have vast areas of remote wilderness inhabited "only" by Indigenous peoples.
With its own uranium enrichment industry, and with plutonium from a waste reprocessing plant, Australia would be only two or three years from possessing nuclear weapons — a goal urged, with careful obliqueness, in a recent issues paper from the right-wing Centre for Independent Studies. Australia should not rule out domestic uranium enrichment, the paper argues, after all it warns the day may come when our country can no longer be certain that the US will safeguard its interests.
But isn't nuclear power needed to prevent global warming? That's what Howard has been telling us. But it's garbage.
Recent US analysis, based on International Energy Agency data, indicates that the world would need around 10,000 nuclear reactors by 2050 to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide to safe levels. It won't happen, not least because nuclear power on that scale would exhaust the Earth's stock of accessible uranium within a decade.
Nuclear power isn't even useful as an interim measure. Big cuts to greenhouse gas emissions need to start within the next few years. Industry experience indicates the time taken to get new nukes on stream is too great.
Bringing global warming to a halt requires an accelerated shift to genuine renewables, plus measures to force the really big energy users to economise.
Typically, renewable energy firms are modest-sized operations. They lack the influence and connections of the large resource and engineering corporations that are poised to take on the building of an Australian nuclear complex. What chance will wind and solar energy companies have of attracting capital and government grants once giant industrial firms start to demand funding for nuclear power?
When powerful corporations lobby pro-business governments, rational decision-making goes out the window. This is the lesson of the success of the coal industry in winning lavish government support for its "clean coal" and geo-sequestration schemes, despite the dim promise of these technologies.
Meanwhile the geothermal industry, potentially able to power Australia hundreds of times over cheaply and with virtually no emissions, remains starved of development capital. Bizarrely, work on world-class geothermal prospects has been stalled because of an inability to hire drilling rigs in the face of oil industry competition.
According to neoliberal doctrine, private ownership of industry is essential to allow competition and to keep prices down. But when a sector is dominated by a handful of giant private oligopolies, most of the competition is between advertising pitches and between corporate lobbyists for space outside the doors of government ministers.
Even where competition operates, it's competition for the last sliver of profit, not for the interests of the public and of the environment.
Understandably, the outcomes of this system are often absurd and, for the planet, mortally dangerous. There is no way such a system can be reformed, and no way it can be allowed to remain in place. Ownership of the resource and energy sector must be taken away from the favour seekers and profit junkies, and put in the hands of society as a whole.
Social ownership of vital industries will open up a huge expansion of democracy so that democratic control can extend not just to certain areas of state administration, but across broad areas of the economy.
But wouldn't public ownership just mean bureaucratic control and official arbitrariness? Indeed, you wouldn't leave industry in the hands of the state as run by John Howard or, putatively, Kevin Rudd.
Saving the environment will need a radical democratisation of society and its institutions. The people holding responsibility within the state and the economy must answer directly to an informed, politically engaged public.
Working people must have our hands both on the levers of production and on the mechanisms of administration. Only then can enlightened popular debate result in rational choices, and in the practical action needed to keep both civilisation and nature intact.