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Nuclear Naïvity

By Ian Lowe

Political posturing over the nuclear industry and higher education reveal scant regard for science.

The proposed Royal Commission into South Australia’s role in the nuclear industry has predictably elicited some naïve assertions. I was particularly struck by announcements to the local media by a Coalition Senator, Sean Edwards, who showed a gullibility that is rare in elected politicians during the run-up to the federal leadership spill motion.

Senator Edwards agreed to oppose the motion when the Prime Minister assured him that the government would honour its election promise to build submarines in South Australia. Of course, once the PM’s position was endorsed, the assurance rapidly submerged beneath the waves.

It first became an assertion that the local company could tender for the work, but then that idea was replaced by a mysterious “competitive evaluation process” that the responsible Minister was unable – or unwilling – to explain.

Senator Edwards added to his unwelcome reputation by telling South Australian media that the State would have free electricity and also could abolish local taxes if it built nuclear power stations and set up a repository for the world’s radio­active waste.

I had not heard the claim of nuclear power being “too cheap to meter” since the height of technological optimism 50 years ago. The Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review chaired by Dr Ziggy Switkowski, who was at the time chair of the Australian Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation and clearly pro-nuclear, concluded that it would take a carbon price and government subsidies to make nuclear energy cost-effective in Australia.

The issue of waste management is complex. There have been various proposals, dating back to the last century, to consolidate the storage of Australia’s low-level radioactive waste at one site. It could be that the overall risk to the community would be reduced by this approach, but I have not seen even back-of-the-envelope calculations comparing the risk of leaving the waste where it is with the risk of transporting it to a well-engineered waste site.

The pipe-dream of Australia taking in radioactive waste from the Northern Hemisphere gets an airing every few years. It may be true that countries like the USA and the UK will eventually abandon their attempts to store their waste and look for another country willing to accept it, but there is absolutely no evidence that they have reached that point.

To assert, as Senator Edwards did, that this is now an unprecedented economic opportunity for South Australia raises data-free analysis to a new level. It will be interesting to see how the Royal Commission, whose appointed chair has no technical qualifications, deals with these sorts of submissions.

Science Taken “Hostage in the Political Process”The Abbott government will not be remembered affectionately by the Australian research community. While its broad hostility to science has been an issue since its election, a new and particularly depressing low point was reached in its threat to cut vital research funding unless the Senate passed its proposed cuts to the higher education budget. I have commented before about the bizarre idea of deregulating the higher education system, with its inevitable consequence of McDonaldisation and slick marketing to distract attention from the inevitable lowering of standards.

The government was so committed to the proposal that its threat became a rare instance of science making the front page in the financial press. As the Australian Financial Review described it, the government threatened “to dump the $150 million-a-year National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme (NCRIS) and sack 1700 scientists as a way to pressure the Senate”.

The approach has not just outraged the science community and academics generally. Even the Business Council of Australia (BCA) has criticised the approach of trying to influence the Senate by threatening to close 27 national facilities. “How have we come to the point where the government feels it can use assets, publicly funded to the tune of over $2 billion, as a hostage in the political process?” BCA president Catherine Livingstone asked.

It is a very good question. The NCRIS-supported facilities are reportedly used by more than 30,000 researchers and companies.

We deserve a more thoughtful approach to science policy than this sort of undergraduate politicking.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.