Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Its come a long way since Chernobyl

Start the New Year the way you plan to continue.

Our beloved Prime Minister hit the ground running with the solemn pronouncement that he wanted a serious, considered political debate about whether Australia should invest in nuclear power. And went on to open it by proclaiming that anyone who opposed nukes was crazy in the extreme.

This apparent contradiction follows the well-trodden path of the introduction of the GST, the sale of Telstra and the sending of troops to Iraq a fudge best explained as a political version of the Great Australian Lie. Ill only put it in a little way and if it hurts Ill take it out again.

You begin by claiming that you are merely floating an idea. A vague hypothesis that will probably never become serious policy, but surely theres no harm in just musing about it. The musing becomes a public discussion; not a commitment, oh lordy no. Thats still a long way in the future if indeed it is ever to be made. But surely it would be silly not to canvas all the options. Theres no point in sticking our heads in the sand, so lets just set up a committee to look at the whole question, not, of course, that we will necessarily be bound by whatever conclusion it comes to.

But, surprise surprise, our committee actually thinks that nuclear power is just beaut. Maybe not immediately, which is just as well because wed have to answer the awkward questions about who would get to live next door to the reactors and the waste dumps, but sometime in the future. The experts have spoken, and wed really be very foolish to ignore them.

Nuclear power is the answer, and anyone who opposes it is crazy in the extreme. Let the serious, considered political debate begin.

The Labor Party has already had its debate, over and over again, and has come to just as intransigent a position: no nukes. Mining uranium may continue, and probably even increase: that particular cat has been out of the bag for too long to stuff it back in. But power stations are too dangerous, too expensive and in any case could not be built in time to have any serious impact on carbon emissions.

And weapons, of course, are completely out of the question though not, it would seem, to Howard. The fine print of his denials suggests that he is leaving himself a little wiggle room for the future, especially if Washington feels the need to park the odd one or two in the Pacific theatre. However, that is for another serious, considered political debate. The present one should be quite sufficient to wedge Labor and the Greens for the current election year.

Should anyone doubt that this is its real purpose, consider Howards choice of words. This is to be a political debate, not one based on objective scientific assessment or on economic and social costs and benefits. Howards argument is that nuclear power is (and his lip visibly trembled as he uttered the unfamiliar mantra) clean and green exactly what the Left has always wanted. Reactors have come a long way since Chernobyl; why, he wouldnt mind living next door to one himself (Janettes views on the likely effect on the neighbourhood and its property values are yet to be sought).

The immediate future, of course, lies in coal, which is somehow to be decarbonised or sequestered or whatever well leave that to the experts. But eventually nuclear will be the only alternative; wind, wave and solar simply dont stack up. Informed that there is a growing body of opinion that they can be made to stack up, and that Australia is uniquely suited to the task, Howard simply shrugs it off; thats not what his own hand-picked experts are telling him, theyre nuclear to their bootstraps. Then he sits back and prepares to watch the Left tie itself in knots over the issue.

Regrettably his chances of success are fairly high, largely because the Left has not always been either rational or consistent where uranium (or kryptonite, as some of the cynics rechristened it) is concerned. I recall one early anti-mining pamphlet warning solemnly that the concentration in some areas of the Northern Territory was so great that even a heavy footfall risked setting off a chain reaction. Another described the uranium ore as a substance which emitted death rays.

And while the critics have since moderated their rhetoric, the inconsistency remains: if nuclear power is really so dangerous and the problems of waste disposal so insoluble, then surely we shouldnt be mining uranium at all. If we completely rule it out for our own use because there are no adequate safeguards, then it is both hypocritical and immoral for us to export it to the rest of the world. Coming from Howard the sophistry is obvious, but the compromisers within the Labor Party still cringe at the charge that they are trying to have their yellow cake and eat it too.

Kevin Rudd has already been told (by The Australian of course) that he has failed a leadership test: his stance is one of lazy populism. The correct approach is Howards campaign to convince Australian to stop worrying and learn to love the reactors. Rudd must be reasonably comfortable with the fact that so far they have stubbornly refused to do so, and are unlikely to switch after being told that they are crazy in the extreme. But then, they have not yet been subjected to a hefty, government-sponsored, taxpayer-funded, serious, considered political debate on the matter either.

Here it comes head for the shelters.

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