Until very recently, anyone observing Australia’s political landscape would have said the federal Government had been confidently steering Australia toward a nuclear-powered future.
It was the Prime Minister’s bold new vision to secure Australia's energy future. He had suddenly woken to the reality of climate change and this was his ticket to positioning Australia as the world’s leading uranium quarry into the future. And to top it all off, our fragile great outback could provide the ideal home for the world’s nuclear waste as well.
The Prime Minister had on several occasions described nuclear power as "inevitable" and even told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell in May 2006 that it was no longer so much a matter of "if", but that "the time at which it will come should be governed by economic considerations".
Armed with the explosive Switkowski report - from which former telco boss and nuclear physicist Dr Ziggy Switkowski argued publicly for 25 nuclear reactors to be dotted across the country, claiming that "nuclear power today is a mature, safe, and relatively clean means of generating base load electricity" - John Howard’s momentum toward securing his often stated vision for Australia’s power future seemed almost, well, nuclear charged.
The Prime Minister said "I am not ruling out (nuclear) power stations anywhere in the country" and declared "policies or political platforms that seek to constrain the development of a safe and reliable Australian uranium industry - and which rule out the possibility of climate-friendly nuclear energy - are not really serious about addressing climate change in a practical way that does not strangle the Australian economy".
Next thing we knew, Ron Walker and fellow mining executives Hugh Morgan and Robert Champion de Crespigny confirmed they were doing ‘preparatory work’ to establish a nuclear business in Australia.
It seemed to be all systems go. But then, suddenly, with an election on the horizon, the nuclear push came to a grinding halt.
The issue that seemed to break the momentum was mounting public controversy and waning Nationals support for nuclear reactors.
Dr Sue Page, National Party candidate for the northern New South Wales electorate of Richmond, went on the record in August stating there would be no support for any nuclear facilities in her electorate, contradicting the Prime Minister's position of the previous week that "decisions as to where nuclear power plants might be located in the future will not be decisions of the government; they will be decisions of commercial investment".
National's leader Mark Vaile supported Dr Page's position, saying local communities should in fact have a direct say in whether or not any nuclear development takes place in their area, "even to the extent of having a binding local plebiscite".
There are now 22 coalition MPs and candidates who have gone public with their opposition to nuclear facilities being built in their electorates, including eight Queensland MPs. As a result of increasing recognition of the public liability in peddling nuclear plans, it appears the nuclear issue has been pushed under the carpet, at least until after the election.
But it is also clear that if re-elected, a federal Coalition government would need to overcome a number of significant hurdles in order to get nuclear reactors up and running.
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