16/07/2008 - 22:00

Getting the elephant out in the open

16/07/2008 - 22:00


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There's an elephant in the room. Whether it's a public forum or a boardroom discussion, if the topic is climate change or lower emissions or the pricing of carbon, there it is - big and hard to miss, but somehow going unnoticed.

Getting the elephant out in the open

"We haven't mentioned nuclear energy. If we are serious about climate change and lowering emissions, we need to discuss nuclear energy," Hatch Australia's Martin Sheriff told CNBC Europe, in Perth recently to record a panel and audience discussion for its Questions for the Future series.

As the debate motored along about clean coal and gas, Mr Sheriff had dared to bring the elephant out into the open. But the British presenter bypassed it completely. Not a sniff.

Perhaps that's because Europe has already had the discussion. After all, 80 per cent of France's energy is nuclear powered, the UK has 19 reactors generating one fifth of its electricity and Finland (which, remember, was downwind of Chernobyl) is building its fifth nuclear plant with a view to being totally independent of oil in a decade.

The elephant was there again at CEDA's recent State of the Nation conference in Canberra. It was acknowledged, not during Climate Change Minister Penny Wong's address on emissions trading or Energy Minister Martin Ferguson's presentation on clean energy, but in two questions from the floor.

Union leader Paul Howes and former NSW Premier Bob Carr recently spoke about the elephant, and were promptly rebuked as being fanciful. One critic played the 'waste' card.

It reminds me of the early days of nitroglycerine. Its creator, Alfred Nobel - yes, that one - was the first to make the stuff explode and was quick to patent it, realising its huge potential in those pioneering states and territories blasting cities and towns out of hard rock.

But he paid a hefty price. He lost his brother and four others when some nitroglycerine exploded at his factory in Stockholm. Other disasters followed, 74 killed in Panama, 14 in San Francisco.

In his book The Arms Bazaar, Anthony Sampson recounts how "every country was now terrified of the stuff, and several forbade the possession of it". Sound familiar?

Nobel continued to experiment, finally coming up with a more practical and less dangerous mixture called "Nobel's safety power" or dynamite.

Gradually, each country overcame its fears and benefited from its peaceful application, while Nobel made a fortune.

The accident at Pennsylvania's Long Island in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, understandably, took nuclear off the agenda in many countries.

But I'm told the technology is now vastly improved and the waste better managed. Remember, nuclear power plants produce electricity with near-zero emissions of CO2.

You'd like to think a sun-kissed, wind-blown nation like Australia, girt by sea, could harness enough solar, wind and wave energy to meet most of our energy needs.

But the experts say that's a long way off and won't be cheap. When carbon is finally priced and we are all paying more for our energy, these will become more viable and part of a portfolio of energy sources, along with lower emission fossil fuels. But let's not also forget the elephant.

- Tom Baddeley is WA state director of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia


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