Labor and Liberals offer no way forward on the environment

24 June 2024
Jack Crawford
Electricity transmission towers in Sydney PHOTO: Brendon Thorne / Bloomberg

Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton has gone into overdrive selling his plan for nuclear energy. Australia’s longstanding bans on nuclear power are a legacy of working-class movements against uranium mining and weapons proliferation. Dutton’s Liberals want to overturn these bans and have proposed sites for seven nuclear power plants.

Anyone naive enough to believe that Peter Dutton has had an environmental epiphany and genuinely wants a transition away from fossil fuels will be disappointed. For one, Dutton’s proposal involves increasing the use of fossil fuels—boosting the role of gas in particular—during the long wait for nuclear power generation to become viable.

But nuclear itself is not an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Atom-splitting is an inherently volatile process that cannot be safely entrusted to the cost-cutting capitalist economy. The relatively short history of nuclear power has proven this, delivering monumental human and environmental tragedies in the cases of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Going into an era of more frequent and extreme weather events, covering the land with nuclear reactors is a terrifying prospect.

Furthermore, nuclear is not a renewable resource. It relies on uranium mining, as well as constant and excessive water use. The question of how and where to store high-level nuclear waste, which must be isolated for millennia, multiplies the environmental problems of this supposedly “green” alternative.

While the Labor Party can dismiss the more insane proposals from Dutton, they themselves have paved the way for this. Over decades, both major parties have taken steps to try to normalise the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia, pushing back against the gains of anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s.

Crucially, the Labor Party under Bob Hawke overturned its “no new mines” policy to permit the mining of uranium at Olympic Dam, one of the world’s largest uranium reserves. Under Kevin Rudd, Labor abandoned the party’s stated opposition to the expansion of uranium mining. At the state and federal levels, Labor has consistently pushed for the establishment of a nuclear waste dump in South Australia—a measure that, if successful, would increase the feasibility of nuclear power generation.

Today, the Albanese government’s commitment to Aukus has set the stage for Dutton’s nuclear turn. The development of nuclear submarines is Labor’s own version of a crazy and expensive nuclear program, and one holding a more realistic danger. With the steady rise in global tensions, ruling classes the world over are striving to bolster the nuclear fuel cycle as a prerequisite to potential nuclear arms development. On the importance of nuclear to warfare, Albanese and Dutton are in agreement, even while they bicker over energy policy.

It’s also not as though Labor is offering an alternative path away from fossil fuels. While Dutton’s nuclear fantasies have stolen most of the headlines, the Albanese government’s recent gas plan is equally horrendous, offering no way forward on climate change.

A few years ago, Labor criticised Scott Morrison’s plan for a post-Covid gas-led recovery. “It’s a slogan, it’s not a policy. It’s simply a fraud”, Chris Bowen said at the time. Today, Labor’s Future Gas Strategy doubles down on Morrison’s efforts, committing not only to burn all the gas currently at our disposal, but to seek out and exploit new reserves.

The government has repeated verbatim the propaganda of the gas industry, presenting gas as somehow a “clean” alternative to coal. But this is not part of a green energy transition. Gas is a climate-wrecking fossil fuel, and the current plan will lock it in as a staple export and domestic energy source for decades to come. As Resources Minister Madeleine King said:

“Natural gas is needed through to 2050 and beyond ... We cannot rely on past investments in gas to get us through the next decades. We need continued investment in, and development of, gas supply and transport infrastructure to get us through the energy transition.”

Labor justifies the continued burning of fossil fuels with vague references to “offsets” that might still achieve net zero. But there is no existing carbon capture and storage technology capable of offsetting the scale of greenhouse gas emissions that the government is planning. This is even more of a fantasy than Dutton’s seven nuclear plants.

It is worth noting that Labor’s plans will have devastating global consequences for fossil fuel usage. Australia’s increasing supply of gas to world markets will shape the trajectory of the world economy, promoting the burning of gas wherever it can be sold.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is no shortage of wealth and technology that could drive transition to renewable power sources. Labor has more than $350 billion to spend on nuclear submarines—money that could fund a complete transformation of our energy system. Instead Labor is committing us to the worst of both worlds: uninterrupted fossil fuel extraction for the profit of a few, and the wasteful construction of nuclear-powered war machines.

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