Queensland conservatives emerge as voice of reason in nuclear debate. Seriously!

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Queensland state LNP breaks with federal counterparts and says renewables and energy efficiency better option than nuclear.

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The Queensland state Liberal National Party (QLNP) has dropped a bombshell into the ongoing federal inquiry into nuclear power.

Its submission to the inquiry goes against prominent members of its federal counterpart, and argues for the retention of federal legislation banning nuclear power, saying more emphasis should be placed on the deployment of renewables and energy efficiency programs.

The QLNP submission is quite a problem for the conservative culture warriors driving the push to embrace nuclear power, not least because most of those warriors are from the conservative wings of the Liberal and National parties, most of them come from Queensland, and some of them are members of the parliamentary committee running the nuclear inquiry.

The inquiry was already farcical, with the government clearly stating that the nuclear ban will be retained regardless of the inquiry’s findings. It is now even more farcical with the LNP at war with itself.

Ted O’Brien, chair of the nuclear inquiry and LNP member for the Queensland seat of Fairfax, has been attacking “left-wing environmentalists” for opposing nuclear power. So perhaps he’ll now be attacking his comrades in the QLNP for being right-wing environmentalists?

The political split is between the conservative culture warriors versus saner Coalition MPs who would like to retain their seats at the next election.

Unfortunately for the warriors, the saner MPs in this issue appear to include the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, and even senior LNP Minister and coal promoter Matt Canavan. Ousted former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently described nuclear power as the “loopy current fad … which is the current weapon of mass distraction for the backbench”.

The culture warriors hoped to create splits within the ALP and the environment movement by promoting nuclear power. Instead, they have split the Coalition.

The warriors have forgotten the experience in John Howard’s last term as Prime Minister. Howard became a nuclear power enthusiast in 2005 and the issue was alive in the 2007 election contest. Howard’s nuclear promotion did nothing to divide the ALP or the environment movement.

On the contrary, it divided the Coalition, with at least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distancing themselves from the government’s policy during the election campaign. The policy of promoting nuclear power was seen to be a liability and it was ditched immediately after the 2007 election.

O’Brien’s attempt to drive a wedge within the environment movement has been clumsy. He cites “renowned English environmentalist Sir James Lovelock” as a pro-nuclear environmentalist. But Lovelock argues that nuclear power is nothing more than a “stop-gap” option (and the only people who describe Lovelock as ‘sir’ are conservative culture warriors ‒ he hasn’t been knighted).

O’Brien claims that “you can’t contend there’s an existential threat to life as we know it due to climate change and then oppose the cleanest form of industrial-scale energy generation the world has seen.”

But there’s no doubt that genuinely clean energy options ‒renewables and efficiency ‒can deliver more climate change abatement per dollar than nuclear power, and much more quickly.

At the August 29 hearing of the nuclear inquiry, the Australian Energy Market Operator foreshadowed the findings of an upcoming report. Alex Wonhas, AEMO’s chief system design and engineering officer, said:

“What we find today at current technology cost is that unfirmed renewables in the form of wind and solar are effectively the cheapest form of energy production. If we look at firmed renewables, for example wind and solar firmed with pumped hydro energy storage, that cost, at current cost, is roughly comparable to new build gas or new build coal-fired generation. Given the learning rate effect that we have just discussed, our expectation is that renewables will further decrease in their cost, and therefore firmed renewables will well and truly become the lowest cost of generation for the NEM.”

So firmed renewables will soon be cheaper than fossil fuels … and are already much cheaper than nuclear power. The QLNP submission to the inquiry notes that “Australia’s rich renewable energy sources are more affordable and bring less risk than the elevated cost and risk associated with nuclear energy”.

The QLNP submission concludes:

“We would encourage the Committee to ensure an increased emphasis is placed on measures designed to encourage investment in renewable energy that creates green jobs and lowers electricity bills, both for consumers and industry, which does notinclude nuclear energy.” (emphasis in original).

The QLNP submission is of course a free hit for the ALP. Queensland Labor Senator Murray Watt said:

“This submission shows the LNP’s state MPs have had enough of their federal counterparts’ pointless culture war against renewable power. Even the LNP’s state MPs acknowledge that renewables are a cheaper and safer way of meeting our future energy needs. They have also slammed their federal counterparts’ pursuit of nuclear power as a massive waste of time and resources. The Queensland LNP’s federal representatives should stop wasting everyone’s time by pursuing their obsession with nuclear power and get behind cheaper and safer means of meeting our energy needs.”

O’Brien claims that opposition to nuclear power is weakening because of the threat of climate change and because of technological advances with ‘advanced’ reactors and ‘small modular reactors’.

That provocative claim led to a joint submission to the inquiry opposing nuclear power, signed by over 50 civil society organisations including all of Australia’s major environment groups.

The submission also attracted extraordinary support from the trade union movement, with signatories including the ACTU and state peak union bodies including Unions SA, Unions NT, Tasmanian Unions, Unions ACT, Unions WA, and the Victorian Trades Hall Council.

Meanwhile, Barnaby Joyce has been using the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources to promote nuclear power. Good luck to him ‒ let’s hope he keeps promoting nuclear power all the way up to the next election. The Committee recently convened a “nuclear industry roundtable” discussion. QLNP members weren’t invited.

Dr. Jim Green is a lead author of a joint environment groups’ submissionto the federal nuclear inquiry, and national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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