"Let the bastards freeze in the dark," was the quip of Sir John Carrick, a senior minister in the Fraser government, in response to the refusal of the Greens equivalent and others to accept any consideration of nuclear power. He quipped that there should be bumper stickers saying just that.
He was ahead of his time. Or more particularly he thought ahead.
That's what we want governments to do, make policies in our long-term interest. To put it in political terms we want them to make policy that our grandchildren will benefit from. Unfortunately short-term populism gets too much sway.
Fifty or so more years later people might be coming to their senses. Technology is always changing and it shouldn't be judged by its earlier iterations. We don't expect to use sundials to tell the time and the first cars didn't have airbags, cupholders, seatbelts or the capacity to go the speeds and distances today's cars go. So why do we judge nuclear power by old outdated technology?
If you say it is fear there's no rationale for that today. The Fukushima accident was in 2011 and the reactor was 40 years was old at the time. That was well over a decade ago. There were no direct deaths at the time but subsequently the disaster-related deaths have been put at 2000. In the two years 2021 and 2022, our road toll was, in total, over 2200.
A Fukushima road toll every two years and we hardly blink. Perhaps it's humanity's collective guilt at the terrible horror of Hiroshima. But that wasn't an accident. It was a quite deliberate, horrific explosion. That is not to be equated with Fukushima or Three Mile Island. But still the spectre of Hiroshima lurks in our minds. And yet Japan is now extending the life of existing nuclear plants and has committed to a next-generation plant being built.
The Greens and the environmental movement have a lot to answer for. Worldwide they have opposed one of the cleanest and most efficient sources of energy. Because of them, Australia will be very late adapters of nuclear technology.
Oops. That's not correct. We are very happy to use it in health scans and nuclear medicine generally. We're happy for that waste to be stored in warehouses in capital cities. But ask us to agree where to put it away from big cities and we go into meltdown. And using it for clean energy is for some people a crazy thought. Actually, we'd be mad not to.
If we'd gone nuclear years ago our use of coal would be much lower. Now in desperation we're making a mess of the energy market trying to get out of coal. We do this as we sell coal to fund our budgets. And we do it as the world's biggest emitters are opening up new coal plants.
But hey, we want to set an example because we emit in 2017 figures 1.1 per cent of global CO2 emissions. The USA was at that time emitting 15 per cent and China 27 per cent. It's true that if everyone who was under 2 per cent did nothing the result would be unhelpful but it is fair enough to know the difference between making a real difference and making a small contribution.
The former justifies serious and destabilising policy change. The latter does not. Our per capita emissions are high ... but that's not the relevant figure and is used by doomsayers to frighten us into thinking we are big contributors to the problem. Which we are not.
Sitting among this policy fracas is the government. With the COP conferences having been so important to Labor and some in the media in providing guidance even templates for policy settings there's going to be a few enrolments in policy contortion classes before long. Shock horror, COP28 is moving to nuclear.
Labor has been anti-nuclear since I can remember but their unwise fixation on Opposition Leader Peter Dutton led them days before COP28 to disparage nuclear power because Dutton had endorsed it. It will take some time but the writing is on the wall for Labor's policy. As Labor people have recently been keen to tell others, they might now find themselves "on the wrong side of history".
Nuclear startup is expensive but it's long term and clean. Labor has never seen the poster which tries to shout out "Think ahead" except the artist didn't think ahead enough to make sure all the letters fitted across the page. Consequently the D is awkwardly slipped in on the line above with a little caret ^ indicating the error of not, well, thinking ahead. If you don't think ahead you often have to use corrective measures.
MORE AMANDA VANSTONE:
More broadly, the continuing opposition to even consideration of nuclear by some is indicative of why we have so many policy problems. It's not because there aren't reasonable solutions and often quite a few. It's because our politics both in a parliamentary sense and in a more personal way has become so shallow and point scoring. Some of it is no better than high school debating.
What is staring Labor in the face is COP28 and AUKUS. In the past they've chosen to use COP decisions as an indication of where we ought to go. A battering ram against the Coalition. Now they don't like a COP recommendation.
Rejecting COP28 on nuclear sets the scene for COP decisions to be just options, not something to be slavishly followed. That's probably a good thing. Then there's the AUKUS nuclear sub endorsement. If you can't see a policy change coming Labor's way, like it or not, you're looking in a different direction.
Climate and energy policy should follow what is practical and workable, not a timeline set by jet setting bureaucrats who are answerable to no-one.
Labor's policy seems to be hoping the sun keeps shining all year and the wind blows every day. Someone should tell them they're dreaming.
- Amanda Vanstone is a former Howard government minister and a regular columnist.