Jay Weatherill's throw of the nuclear dice

Australia has, with one exception, never seriously contemplated  the question of nuclear power generation. Abundant, easily accessible coal reserves have rendered economic imperatives redundant, and the ability of anti-nuclear campaigners to stoke public fear has killed debate in political circles. The federal Labor Party's 2011 policy platform expressly forbids "the establishment of nuclear power plants and other stages of the nuclear fuel cycle", and though the Liberal Party's thinking on the matter is more agnostic, the only senior to have seriously embraced the idea of a domestic nuclear power industry was Robert Menzies. In the early 1960s, the then-prime minister proposed building a reactor at Jervis Bay on the NSW south coast to produce weapons-grade plutonium as well as electricity for the NSW grid. But the enthusiasm of his successors for the plan waned, especially after it was revealed that electricity generated there would be twice the price of coal-fired power.

Now, the South Australian premier, Labor's Jay Weatherill, says he wants a debate on establishing a nuclear power industry in his state, and in coming days he is expected to announce the terms of reference for a royal commission to examine all of the practical financial and ethical issues involved. "I have in the past been opposed to nuclear power, all elements of it," he said on Sunday. "I now have an open mind. The question is whether we should deepen our involvement for our benefit".

Mr Weatherill's exploration of the nuclear option may be remarkable from a political perspective, but not from an economic or environmental standpoint. SA has large coal reserves, but these deposits are made up mostly of low grade lignite, which is highly polluting when burned and largely unsuited to power generation in a carbon-constrained world.  More fundamentally, South Australia has a shrinking economic base, with automotive manufacture due to end in 2017, and the outlook for naval shipbuilding uncertain at best. Mr Weatherill, who has spoken of the state's "genteel decline", believes establishing a nuclear industry will foster jobs and investment, and that it will help position the state to meet its future obligations regarding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. A testament to the premier's enthusiasm is that the prospect of the state serving as a storage facility for nuclear waste has also been mooted for investigation by the royal commission.

To what extent South Australia's long-term prosperity would be enhanced by the development of a nuclear industry – comprising mining, enrichment, energy and storage – will be the royal commission's chief objective. The viability of an industry likely to require significant underwriting by the state will also come under close scrutiny. Critics of Mr Weatherill's plan have already suggested the benefits of adding value to the state's uranium exports will be insubstantial given that the much heralded global renaissance in nuclear power has yet to eventuate and that there is a global oversupply of enrichment capacity. Given previous public opposition to a low-level waste dump in South Australia, critics also argue that storing international high-level waste will never pass the pub test. 

There is much fear-mongering and insinuation bruited about the nuclear power industry – much of it based on accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. There are assertions that the negligible greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear reactors are outweighed by those released in their construction and in the mining of uranium, and that renewable wind and solar power is "cleaner, cheaper and safer". In fact, the number of fatalities associated with nuclear reactor accidents stands favourable comparison with those that have occurred during the mining and burning of coal. And while the price of wind and solar power technology is dropping, the frequently remote location of arrays and turbines means these renewables will long or always struggle to match the cost competitiveness of nuclear power.

Mr Weatherill will be vilified by environmentalists and some on his own side of politics for daring to overturn long-standing Labor policy. However, SA's deteriorating economic landscape (as well as the relative paucity of its mineral resources) demand bold thinking. Whatever its drawbacks, nuclear power has the capacity not just to boost SA's economy and technological capacity but to deliver an environmental dividend as well.