Scott Morrison is reported to have said when announcing the AUKUS deal “Let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability.” He should change his mind.
If he is to have a credible path to a promise of carbon neutrality by 2050, it must include nuclear as the only reliable baseload power source which has zero emissions and can be slotted into the existing electricity network in time and to a reasonable budget.
He also needs a strong national economy to complement his defence effort, and you cannot build a strong economy on an expensive power source that only turns up when it “feels” like it.
The sub decision sets up a virtuous circle. Nuclear submarines make our defence more secure, and normalises the use of nuclear power, making it more acceptable for use in civil generation, making our economy stronger, which feeds back into national security by making defence more affordable.
It’s obvious why Australian attitudes to China have changed, but not so obvious why attitudes to nuclear power have.
We conducted polling in late May and early June of this year, finding that 47% of Australians favour nuclear power generation, and only 39% reject it, 11% are neutral and 3% unsure. This is statistically close to findings in 2019 by Essential Media that 44% support and 40% oppose, and Morgan, that 51% support and 34% oppose.
Both organisations’ polling also shows an increasing acceptance of nuclear over the last 10 years. (Morgan also found more recently that 57% of Australians approve of nuclear-powered submarines).
In our poll support for nuclear generation became even stronger when it was restricted to fourth generation, small modular reactors, which are of a similar size to the nuclear reactors for warships.
The clearest driver of this change in attitude is climate change. 59% of voters think CO2 emissions are an existential threat that needs to be dealt with urgently, while only 31% disagreed. Coupled with a broad-based concern about reliable power generation, and both sides of the climate change argument had reasons to support nuclear.
There were of course lots of reasons to oppose nuclear – safety, long-lived radioactive waste, perceived expense, and the fear that nuclear would pre-empt and marginalise wind and solar.
Modular reactors reduced perceptions of risk — at somewhere around 50 -70 MW they are only 5% the size of a small 1 GW nuclear reactor, so threats of explosion and radioactive waste seem more manageable.
The party splits were particularly informative. The strongest supporters of nuclear were the nationalist parties – One Nation, Liberal Democrats, Christian Democrats and so on, as opposed to the cosmopolitan parites. The strongest opponents were the Greens. Liberal voters were also supportive, while two-thirds of Labor voters opposed it.
On climate change, those most concerned were Labor (96%) and Greens (98%). The least concerned were the nationalists (7%). Liberals were in-between, with 24% of supporters concerned.
Whether advertent or not, Morrison has potentially found a way to thread a path which shifts debate more towards defence, and gives him a climate change issue that can help to assemble a winning coalition without getting bogged down in nit-picking and rancour.
The next election will come down to preferences from minor parties. With over 80% of Greens preferences going Labor, they are predictable. What is much more volatile is the distribution of non-Greens minor party preferences.
An issue that excites the nationalists, but that can also maintain a climate change narrative, has vote-winning potential.
The defection of prominent Liberals, like Campbell Newman, to the nationalists suggests deep dissatisfaction with Morrison’s government, and a historically high minor party vote, magnifying Morrison’s problem.
This also explains why Albanese has been mildly supportive of the submarine decision. He wants to pick his fight somewhere else.
If this leads to Labor going soft on opposition to nuclear power generation this is also to the good. It has always been bizarre that Australia has 30% of the world’s resources of uranium, and is the third-largest exporter of the mineral, but uses none of it to generate electricity.
To electrify our economy we need at least 250 to 300 per cent more electricity generation than we have at the moment. The thought that this can be produced by renewables with their low intrinsic efficiencies, huge storage requirements, and demands for a dramatically expanded network, in time for 2050 and at a reasonable cost, is fanciful.
We can buy the nuclear subs from either the US or the UK. If we take the UK option, perhaps they could come with a side serving of RR-branded small modular reactors.
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