Dr Finkel’s ill-advised advocacy of nuclear power

by ray goodlass

My column in this week’s Daily Advertiser was on newly appointed Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel’s ill-advised advocacy of nuclear power, as follows:

Nuclear power belongs to the 1950s and let’s leave it there

Last week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Monash University Chancellor Dr Alan Finkel as the successful applicant for the prestigious position of Chief Scientist. Dr Finkel will replace Professor Ian Chubb in January 2016.

Particularly encouraging was Dr Finkel’s announcement that a future Australia will be fuelled without coal, oil or natural gas, but instead by zero emissions electricity. However, when he spelled out what these zero emission energy sources would be many of us were very concerned, for he argued that the alternatives should include nuclear energy

At the announcement Mr Turnbull added fuel to the fire, as it were, for although he stressed the improving economic viability of solar energy he also defended the coal industry against a push for a moratorium on new Australian coal mines.

“It would make not the blindest bit of difference to global emissions,” he said. “If Australia stopped exporting coal, the countries to which we export they would simply buy it from somewhere else.”

Predictably the fossil fuel industries jumped on the words of Dr Finkel and Mr Turnbull with glee. A BHP Billiton spokesman, for example, said the group believes fossil fuels “will remain an important part of the global energy mix and note comments from Dr Finkel that significant changes in energy demand and supply will not happen overnight.”

The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association’s chief, Malcolm Roberts, also pointed to the time involved in eliminating the electricity sector’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Both executives said coal and gas would still be needed in a world where electricity supplies relied on nuclear, renewables and battery storage.

Regrettably the support Messrs Finkel and Turnbull have received from the coal and nuclear industries shows once again that the fossil fuel industry will do anything to muddy the waters around renewables. Attempting to divert the conversation to nuclear is the desperate act of an industry scrambling to remain relevant as the world leaves them behind.

But thankfully Sixty-one prominent Australians, including rugby star David Pocock, have signed an open letter calling Mr Turnbull to ban new coal mines and push for an international ban on coal.

Politically the Finkel/Turnbull comments have also been greeted with the mixed feelings they deserve. For example, Greens Science spokesperson Adam Bandt MP today welcomed the appointment of Dr Alan Finkel as Chief Scientist and encouraged Dr Finkel to continue to champion renewable energy through his new position.

“The Greens welcome Dr Alan Finkel’s appointment as Chief Scientist as a boost to our national discussion about how to electrify Australia,” Mr Bandt said. “Although we differ with him about nuclear power, we hope Dr Finkel’s appointment represents a new scientific consensus that coal’s days are numbered.”

Australian energy production and exports should focus on the opportunities of the 21st century, not the failures of the 20th century, Australian Greens Deputy Leader and spokesperson for nuclear issues Senator Scott Ludlam said. With a disappointed sense of déjà vu I am not sure how many times this argument needs to be had, but the answers are the same as they’ve been for decades: nuclear power is too slow and too costly to make any useful contribution to Australia’s energy mix, to say nothing of the toxicity of the waste (which is now coming back to haunt Mr Turnbull), and the inextricable connection to the weapons industry, and of course the potential for disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. And let’s not forget that Australian uranium was in the reactors at Fukushima.