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Leslie Kemeny's nuclear crusade

By Jim Green - posted Tuesday, 29 January 2013


Other than paid columnists, retired academic and strident nuclear advocate Leslie Kemeny has had more opinion pieces published in Australian newspapers than anyone else. A rough calculation indicates he has had over 200 pieces published over the past 40 years.

The remarkable thing is that it's pretty much the same opinion piece every time. A topical lead, then a light edit of previous material. Many of his pieces contain an appeal to "informed realism" − which is nothing more than a cheap shot at uninformed, unrealistic critics of the industry. He often refers to unnamed "international experts" who are purportedly "appalled" or "bemused" at Australia's failure to expand the nuclear industry − again, no substance, he's just wasting precious seconds that you'll never get back.

In recent years Kemeny has repeatedly quoted an International Energy Agency (IEA) report which purportedly states that: "Nuclear power is the technology which must be accelerated and promoted and relied upon if the world is to stabilise carbon dioxide emissions at an acceptable level."

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In fact, the IEA has never said any such thing. The report to which Kemeny refers merely said that nuclear power is one technology that can help reduce greenhouse emissions. Energy efficiency and renewables contribute eight times more to climate change abatement than nuclear power under the IEA's hypothetical scenario.

Nuclear expansion is always portrayed as a pathway to wealth and prosperity in Kemeny's opinion pieces and these assertions are unencumbered by any connection with reality. He writes that exporting uranium without first enriching it "is just plain dumb", yet the Switkowski Report, BHP Billiton and others have argued that an enrichment industry in Australia would be an economic white elephant.

There are numerous factual errors; for example, Kemeny claims that "about 60" countries have embraced nuclear power − nearly twice the true figure. He claims that the Chernobyl death toll is 56, but studies by the World Health Organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other UN bodies estimate 9,000 deaths in Eastern Europe, while other credible scientific studies put the global figure as much as 10 times higher.

Many of Kemeny's "facts" could be described as outliers; for example, he gives a figure of five kilograms of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of nuclear power, yet the 2006 Switkowski Report put the figure 12 times higher.

Kemeny claims in a January 2013 opinion piece in the Canberra Times that there is a growing consensus among the world's leading scientists that energy can be best sourced from a ''generation four'' nuclear power plant. There is no such consensus and Kemeny provides no evidence to support the claim. His claim that "generation four" reactors could produce electricity for under two cents per kilowatt hour is laughable. The French Superphenix was promoted as the first commercial-scale 'fast breeder' reactor in the world. However it was one of the worst-performing reactors in history and the electricity it produced cost US$1.33 perkilowatt hour. Once again, Kemeny isn't just wrong, but wrong by orders of magnitude.

In 1982, Kemeny's writings were subjected to detailed analysis by Prof. Brian Martin, a physicist who was then teaching in the science faculty at the Australian National University. Prof. Martin concluded his analysis:

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"In quite a number of ways, Kemeny in his public advocacy of nuclear power does not fit the image of the objective, trustworthy expert: he addresses only some of the issues and seldom replies to anti-nuclear arguments; he presents large amounts of irrelevant material; he is subject to inaccuracy, and on occasion fails to acknowledge his mistakes; he continually denigrates opponents; he speaks from a position representing a potential conflict of interest; and his expertise is mostly irrelevant to the issues, or of doubtful quality."

Kemeny threatened to sue and claimed that legal counsel had suggested a five-figure sum for damages. It was an idle threat − there was no apology and no legal action. The correspondence − both entertaining and illuminating − is posted on Prof. Martin's Wollongong University webpage.

Kemeny suggests Prof. Martin "may never have left the sterile corridors of academia", yet at least one of Kemeny's forays beyond academia ended in disaster. He was caught up in the failed Nu-Tec investment scheme (as a victim according to the ABC). This was the subject of a two-part special on the 7:30 Report in 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

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