Peter Dutton’s nuclear energy plan for Australia is never going to happen – but it will still dominate the election, writes PETER VAN ONSELEN

The great nuclear debate can now begin in earnest. Only it won’t be great. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has announced his plans to campaign for introducing nuclear power into Australia’s energy mix at the next election. 

There is so much to unpack surrounding what happens next: the political implications, the policy feasibility of ‘going nuclear’, what it means for energy prices and emissions reductions targets, as well as what the chances are of it ever happening.

Unfortunately, however, all we are going to get from here is a Seinfeld election campaign about nothing. Labor will focus in on the mother of all scare campaigns, which will be divorced from reality. And the Coalition, even if it can win the election on its big nuclear policy, won’t be able to implement it anyway because of opposition across the states. 

Australia is destined to lack the maturity to discuss the viability of nuclear energy free of partisan fights and ideological support or opposition towards the technology, irrespective of whether going nuclear is realistic or not.   

So the central issue for the looming election campaign  – nuclear vs renewables – which will likely dominate the next federal election will be a distraction from what the majority of Australians want to focus on: cost of living pressures, the challenges of immigration and housing, as well as how the economy can be reshaped to solve such problems. 

Peter Dutton (pictured) is going all in on nuclear power as his solution to energy shortages and to achieve emissions reductions

Nonetheless, we need to explain why the nuclear debate is a red herring that will catch so much attention.  

Lets start with the scare campaign Labor is about to ramp up, coupled with the Coalition’s decision to put a massive policy target on its back. 

The last two times an opposition set itself up to impose a massive policy shift if it wins an election was 1993 and 2019. John Hewson’s Fightback campaign to introduce a GST and Bill Shorten’s attempt to reform negative gearing and franking credits. Both men lost elections judged to be unloseable. Both policy agendas were targeted with brutal scare campaigns. 

The lesson Dutton has decided to ignore is that campaigning on big reforms while in opposition is a recipe for failure. 

We know scare campaigns work, not only because of these two historical examples but also because they have worked against incumbents too. 

Political advertising executives will all tell you until they are blue in the face that negative campaigning is more successful than positive campaigning. Dutton needs to positively explain why his nuclear policy is a good idea, the Labor government only has to go negative and outline all the reasons it is bad policy. 

Nuclear technology has come a long way, but at the moment there is a ban on introducing it in Australia and the state's would need to get on board to change that

Nuclear technology has come a long way, but at the moment there is a ban on introducing it in Australia and the state’s would need to get on board to change that

The worst part of this reality if you’re Dutton is that the scare campaign doesn’t even have to be true. Just look at the 2016 Mediscare campaign Malcolm Turnbull was up against at the 2016 election. 

Labor’s claims at the time that Turnbull planned to ‘abolish Medicare’ were completely untrue and unachievable even if he’d wanted to do it. But that didn’t stop Labor campaigning on the issue and voters being frightened. 

Turnbull won but only just. The closeness of the election result ended his prime ministership soon enough. 

The degree of difficulty repelling a scare campaign is that much harder in opposition. So why did Dutton embark on the course that he has? 

He can’t let the Nationals go off on a campaign arguing against renewables without some sort of alternative to help bring down emissions. Nuclear gives him that. He ideologically believes the state based bans all around the country, as well as nationally, is silly policy, which he’s right about. It’s policy retrofitted to a 1970s attitude about nuclear power. 

Dutton also knows that the last (and only) serious independent study analysing nuclear power’s viability was handed down back in 2006. It found that yes it is viable, but only if steps to implement the policy shift happen right away. 

That never happened. 

So if you’re energy agnostic, as I am, and pro a technology neutral approach to emissions reductions, as I also am, the problem with going nuclear is that Australia may have left its run too late. But we don’t know that because we need an up-to-date independent study. 

The problem with Dutton announcing his intention to go nuclear the way that he has is that he really shouldn’t be doing so without a proper feasibility study independently and rigorously carried out. What he has commissioned doesn’t amount to that level of detailed analysis. You need to be in government first to do that. 

The Labor government won’t do it, and for some reason Dutton wants to do more than commit to doing such a study if he wins the next election. Probably because he wants to say he has a tangible solution to energy needs and emissions reductions, not just a thought bubble of doing a study before making a decision. 

Dutton might also be worried that without details, Labor’s scare campaign could go off in any number of directions he hopes today’s details will counter. But the scare campaign will do all of that anyway, because as already noted, political scare campaigns aren’t rooted in fact. 

An election about nothing on nuclear power is on the cards, just like the Seinfeld show 'about nothing'

An election about nothing on nuclear power is on the cards, just like the Seinfeld show ‘about nothing’

Everything from protestors in hazmat suits to images of the Simpsons and the leaky unsafe nuclear reactor that their town of Springwood depended on will come up during the campaign. 

Labor will argue that reactors might pop up all over the country, not just in the electorates the Coalition nominates. It will point to international reactor failures, even if the technologies have advanced since then and Australia’s topography is very different. 

Then we have the final issue which is the reason this whole debate that is about to start in earnest is a waste of time. A campaign about nothing. 

The state’s won’t approve the policy and the senate probably won’t approve the legislation before we even get to the states. 

The Greens look set to control the Senate’s balance of power after the next election and they are utterly opposed to going nuclear. 

If state governments stand by their nuclear bans there isn’t much the Commonwealth can do to get around that. And state premiers and even Coalition opposition leaders are already lining up to say there is no way they will lift nuclear bans. It might become a constitutional fight. 

This policy is dead on arrival. 

The good news in this should be that the states might be saving Dutton from himself politically, but the dye has been cast already. Even though the fact there is virtually no chance of Dutton’s nuclear policy going live – because of the hurdles he has to overcome but can’t – should reduce the potency of a Labor scare campaign, it probably won’t. 

Because Dutton won’t want to accept that he can’t get this policy past the states, and it suits the Labor government to pretend that he might to service the potency of its scare campaign. 

At his media conference Dutton noted that Paul Keating once said that it is dangerous to get between a Premier and a bag full of money, suggesting that he can win the states over by bribing them with handouts. 

But it would need to be so much money (or arm twisting via denying Commonwealth grants) that the sheer quantum of what would be required might bankrupt the federal treasury. I can’t even reach a lofty financial figure that, in my mind, might get them on board.  

Political scare campaigns work, and Anthony Albanese (pictured) is about to unleash the mother of all scare campaigns against Dutton's nuclear policy

Political scare campaigns work, and Anthony Albanese (pictured) is about to unleash the mother of all scare campaigns against Dutton’s nuclear policy

So here we are as a nation: in need of nuclear but long before now. Unable to overcome the barriers to its consideration, much less implementation. 

Labor strategists are utterly convinced their scare campaign against Dutton’s nuclear policy will work and at the same time, fix their current political problems. 

Coalition strategists are divided as to whether ‘going nuclear’ will work or not. Some believe they are writing their own political death warrant and never should have gone down this path because the Labor government is teetering on the edge of political oblivion. 

Others say modern Australia is ready for this debate and an old fashion scare campaign won’t work. 

No first term government has defeated a first term opposition since 1931, and that election was fought in the midst of The Great Depression. Winning in the circumstances the Coalition is in was already going to be hard, but the degree of difficulty just went up courtesy of today’s policy announcement. 

Irrespective of whether going nuclear is good, and irrespective of the failures of this incompetent Labor administration. 

Okay, so even though this nuclear debate is ultimately about nothing for the reasons explained, on the assumption anyone has read this far and wants to weigh up the policy pros and cons of going nuclear anyway, to conclude, here they are. 

The pros include that nuclear power helps achieve emissions reductions. They are comparable to renewables in this respect but with base load power renewables currently can’t achieve. In theory phasing out coal fired power and introducing nuclear could make a lot of sense. 

Nuclear power when viable is highly efficient, isn’t weather dependent and can operate around the clock. Australia’s safe climate and topography makes us ideally suited to housing nuclear reactors. 

High quality regulatory systems and environmental standards would help ensure safety standards prevent problems. As a well developed nation, we also have the technological capacity to provide the workforces that nuclear reactors require. 

And Australia has one of the world’s largest supplies of yellowcake, the ingredient which fuels nuclear energy. 

The cons are that Australia may have left its run too late, damaging the business case of going nuclear. Even smaller reactors might take more than a decade to build, but which time other technologies have filled the gap they were designed to fill. 

Building such controversial technology across political cycles is also a risk. And of course the risk of disasters like those we have seen overseas is always present when nuclear technology is embraced. 

And with that, let the next round of the climate wars begin! 

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