Senior Coalition figures are demanding nuclear power stations across Australia. Picture: supplied
Senior Coalition figures are demanding nuclear power stations across Australia. Picture: supplied

Wake up and smell the radiation. Nuclear is not the answer

Senior Coalition figures are demanding nuclear power stations across Australia, which would represent a massive growth opportunity for the union I lead.

If dozens of power plants were to pop up on the fringes of Australian cities it would create thousands of well-paid jobs for Electrical Trade Union members.

But here's the thing: the members I represent - electrical workers who understand power generation - could not be more staunchly against an Australian nuclear industry.

This is why the ETU, despite the obvious direct benefits on the table, is against the nuclear push.

So what are our reasons?

Firstly, there's the economics.

An Australian nuclear industry would face far greater challenges than most. Picture: istock
An Australian nuclear industry would face far greater challenges than most. Picture: istock

A few months ago, the giant global financial advisory Lazard calculated the 'levelised' cost of various means of electricity production.

Natural gas was $A59 per megawatt hour, solar was $A52, and wind $A42.

Nuclear was $A161, according to the findings.

Little wonder that Exelon senior vice president William Von Hoene noted last year: "I don't think we're building any more nuclear plants in the United States. I don't think it's ever going to happen. They are too expensive to construct."

Mr Von Hoene's negativity about nuclear's prospects is shared by the governments of South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Belgium - all of whom are now committed to phasing out their nuclear power industries. By 2022, Germany has committed to closing all seven of its nuclear reactors.

Every single recent report, including an in-depth study by our own CSIRO, shows nuclear is uneconomical unless massively subsidised by taxpayers.

And an Australian nuclear industry would face far greater challenges than most.

In established nuclear generation countries the best case scenario is about five years to build a new plant. That's with established regulatory bodies, procedures, and an existing skilled workforce.

This means you would be looking at a decade at least to build a nuclear power station in Australia, when the same size power generation completed in a combination of solar, wind, and battery storage could be done in under two years.

Basically anyone who tells you an Australian nuclear industry is an economic win is either lying or has been lied to.

Resources Minister Matt Canavan has shied away from backing an inquiry into nuclear power in Australia. Picture: AAP Image/Jono Searle
Resources Minister Matt Canavan has shied away from backing an inquiry into nuclear power in Australia. Picture: AAP Image/Jono Searle

Yet even if the numbers could balance on an Australian nuclear power industry, our union would still oppose it.

And that is our second reason for taking a stand - it's far too dangerous.

The inescapable point is that when you split the nucleus of a uranium molecule, the radiation released damages living cells.

Yes, you can create safeguards, but they will never be failsafe.

And those on the frontline of the danger won't be the loudmouths in parliament or talkback radio pushing for a nuclear industry.

It will be the working people - the miners who dig up radioactive material and the power station workers.

And it's not just the hazardous material that poses dangers, there is also the immense security risk.

I visited a nuclear power station in Texas, USA, to better inform myself about the processes from the generation through to radioactive waste disposal.

The drive to the plant was zigzagged - a necessary precaution to stop any would-be ram-raids building momentum. Armed response teams with automatic weapons closely monitored the perimeter.

By 2022, Germany has committed to closing all seven of its nuclear reactors. Picture: Getty Images
By 2022, Germany has committed to closing all seven of its nuclear reactors. Picture: Getty Images

After they handed back our passports and checked our phones and cameras to delete any pictures they didn't like, I thought of my home near New South Wales; Lucas Heights facility and the nights I see dozens of police motorbikes and cruisers helping to transport a tiny amount of medical grade nuclear material.

The idea of amplifying this risk is horrifying.

As a union, we simply can't justify putting our members in that line of fire. And we don't need to.

In Australia's transition away from high-emission fuel sources, we don't have to turn to one with such a high margin for error.

Zero-emission, renewable sources of energy and storage abound and the technology is improving at breakneck speed.

All we need is for government and investors to lock in behind it and not be distracted by nuclear pipe dreams.

There has been a legal prohibition against the construction of nuclear power reactors in Australia since 1999. Maybe conservative politicians need to be reminded of that.

Because at the moment it seems the only thing with a longer half-life than radioactive waste is the misguided patience of those spruiking an Australian nuclear industry.

Allen Hicks is the Electrical Trades Union national secretary.