Power to the market

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People who care about climate change can thank Prime Minister John Howard for putting the nuclear power debate on the political agenda in Australia. Nuclear ambitions mean the Right has its “own technology” to address the greenhouse challenge and can therefore advocate for action on climate change.

This is important because climate change is much more serious than most people think. It is common both to underestimate how fast the adverse consequences of global warming are coming upon us, and to fail to recognize how little time is left in which to act.

Already we have gone too far in terms of fast-rising atmospheric levels of CO2, the main greenhouse gas, to prevent somewhere between two and three degrees C of global warming in the 21st Century. That means we are now at serious risk of losing Kakadu national park, the Great Barrier Reef and most of the Amazon rainforest, among many other drastic impacts. It also seems increasingly likely this level will see the irreversible melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets begin.

It is not just me, or environmentalists saying this. It is mainstream climate experts such as Sir David King, the UK's chief scientist, and also the scientific panel which advises the leaders of the world's largest economic powers, the G8. So we are facing catastrophic impacts and the world is waking up to this very fast.

This is very scary stuff and soon the inaction on climate change that has characterized the Bush Administration in the US and the Howard Government in Australia will be swept aside. I see a “world war” level of mobilization in regard to climate change within about five to 10 years including a global treaty for action to cut greenhouse emissions. In the face of a global crisis of unimaginable proportions, it will be a war on ourselves and the way we currently live.

That to me is the framing of the new nuclear debate, although I know many people remain stuck in the world of the “old debate”. I was part of that old debate, an anti-nuclear activist for many decades, but now I believe we have to leave behind all of our old assumptions, especially in terms of ideology and technology.

In addressing the nuclear question, I generally can find something to annoy everyone. This is what I have learned about the nuclear industry.

* Firstly, the nuclear industry does not kill many people in comparison to other industries. Even using the high end of fatality estimates used by anti nuclear activists of tens of thousands of deaths from Chernobyl, it doesn't rate as a dangerous industry taken over its 50 years of operation. By contrast the auto industry's products kill 45,000 people every single year in America and about 2 million each year around the world through road accidents. So safety is a really poor argument against nuclear power, though it's one commonly used. Coal and oil are genuinely dangerous by comparison to nuclear power. Just look at the thousands of deaths each year in China's coal-mining industry or the tens of thousands that die globally from respiratory diseases caused by local pollution.

* Secondly, nuclear power is inextricably linked with military and security concerns, and now with the terrorism threat as well. The dangers of nuclear proliferation are very real. Just look at what we are learning from the Iran stand-off. This is a compelling argument against nuclear power. Why have this industry and its risks if we don't need them?

* Thirdly, and this for me is the most telling point of all, the nuclear industry would never survive in a free market. In the US, the spiritual home of market-based democracy, the government takes on a large part of the financial risk posed by the nuclear industry. The insurance industry, the market institution in the business of managing risk, won't take on the real risks posed by the nuclear industry.

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Yes, the industry tells us going forward it will be different on many of these issues. They say that Chernobyl was different, that new reactor designs are safer and cheaper and less prone to terrorism. But we have always heard great predictions from the industry and I for one believe the nuclear industry has earned its bad reputation and I simply don't trust them. That doesn't mean they're wrong, but it does means they have to prove it, not promise it.

So how do we move forward in this debate? My activist life now revolves around how to use market forces to drive social change. On environmental issues in particular, I see harnessing markets as the only way to drive enough change, fast enough globally. So the telling thing about the nuclear debate in the context of the world's escalating focus on solutions to address climate change is that it requires forcing nuclear technology on to the market. It requires significant government intervention, as is now favoured by the Howard government. Without it, it will fail.

Personally I don't think nuclear power will ever be the answer to our climate challenge. Recently, however, I have been an advocate for having the nuclear debate again in Australia and globally, and for doing it properly. I say bring it on because, by having it, we will be pointed towards other possible climate solutions. Importantly, we should never fall for the idea that any single technology, nuclear or otherwise, offers some silver-bullet solution. Nor should we ever believe that any technology is inherently good or bad.

That is where we currently sit, and it is very dangerous when we have an ideological view on technology such as: solar is good and nuclear is bad, or vice versa. Technology is a tool, not a philosophy. I don't want John Howard or Greenpeace making judgments about the right technology on behalf of society. Everyone is too caught up in their own ideological positions, or commercial or political interests, or whatever else that most influences them.

So what is the solution? I look to the markets. The answer is to put a price on carbon. This could be a carbon tax, though I believe the best option is to introduce an emissions trading system that allows the market to set the price. In this scenario, nuclear power can then be evaluated by the market in competition with alternatives, be that coal with carbon capture and storage, renewable technologies such as wind and solar, or many other established and emerging possibilities.

That means we'd have the new debate about nuclear power and its potential role as a solution to the climate challenge in the real world rather than as some theoretical discussion littered with ideology and historical baggage. We'd have the debate on fair terms in a democratic process with a level playing field. We should let the people decide.

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This article is an edited version of a speech given at the Fabian Society forum ‘Uranium — should Australia go Nuclear?' at Gleebooks in Sydney last Wednesday. For details on future Fabian Society events see www.fabian.org.au

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