QUARTERLY ESSAY 27 Reaction Time



Guy Pearse

I was at the National Press Club in 2005 when Ian Lowe gave his prescient warning about the dangers of Australia proceeding further down the nuclear path, and I recall his speech going against the grain for many people there. It wasn’t that they disagreed with what Lowe was saying – they just thought he was jumping at shadows. Nuclear power was not high on the political agenda, let alone the greenhouse policy agenda, in Australia at the time. Only a year before, the Howard government had made clear in its Energy White Paper that nuclear power was not happening in Australia: “Use of uranium reserves raises cost, safety and disposal issues in power generation … Australia is not contemplating the domestic use of nuclear power.” Senior ministers, including Ian Macfarlane and Nick Minchin, dismissed nuclear power as something that would never be viable – not even for a hundred years. But Ian Lowe saw something else coming – the inevitability that climate change would be taken seriously in Australia, and the political irresistibility of nuclear power once that occurred.

When Howard had his nuclear conversion, most observers failed to take it seriously. Many in the business community, the environmental movement, political and bureaucratic circles were dismissive when John Howard appeared to back-flip on nuclear power in 2006 after a trip to Washington. For them, Howard’s agenda was simply wedging Labor on uranium mining and facilitating an expansion of that industry. There were no serious plans to support uranium enrichment, to make Australia the world’s radioactive waste dump, and no one really thought nuclear power would ever be viable in Australia. As for a sceptic prime minister who had twice blocked emissions trading suddenly embracing a carbon price high enough to make nuclear power competitive in the low-emissions energy market? The prospect seemed remote to almost everyone. It would cut across the government’s whole approach to climate change and its heavy focus on “clean coal.” Or so most people thought. 

However, most observers missed a few things. They failed to appreciate the powerful influence of the various Howard–Bush tête-à-têtes on climate change and energy policy and the consistency of a pro-nuclear stance with the approach locked in at these meetings. They failed to appreciate the tenacious ideological support for the nuclear industry among neo-liberals within the Liberal Party. And they failed to notice the confluence of interests between many in the fossil-fuel and uranium industries. Nor did they distinguish between the short and long term. Had more people been more mindful of these factors, they would have seen Howard’s nuclear conversion coming and taken it far more seriously.

John Howard has had a symbiotic relationship with the Bush administration in general, and his climate-change response largely mirrored that of his US counterpart. As I describe in my book High and Dry, the first meeting between the two men on the eve of the September 11 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York was a decisive moment. Not only did going through something horrific together provide a uniquely deep foundation for a close political relationship; it also just happened to be the meeting at which the Bush administration suggested a radically different approach to climate change. Senior Howard-government officials confided to me that it was at this meeting that Bush offered Howard a way around Kyoto. Australia could either be with the EU and Kyoto, or with the United States. And, from the following morning, being with or against the Bush administration took on a whole new meaning. 

The whole notion of binding targets and timetables to cut greenhouse emissions was dumped and replaced with a focus on “new technology.” Then followed a series of tête-à-têtes. Some, like the September 11-eve meeting, involved Bush conveying new ideas he wanted Howard to adopt – as with the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. Others involved Howard bearing greenhouse news Bush would love (for instance, in 2002, that Australia would not ratify Kyoto; and in 2003, the second Cabinet decision against emissions trading). So when the pair met in early 2006 and the President was pushing nuclear expansion in the US as well as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), close observers of the Bush–Howard relationship would have been unsurprised by Howard’s sudden embrace of nuclear power. The main attraction of the GNEP was its consistency with the agreed greenhouse policy approach of both men – to focus on global emissions and avoid binding Australia and the US to emissions-reduction targets. The GNEP aimed to open up new markets for nuclear energy on the back of its “greenhouse friendliness” (downplaying the security risks by promising “proliferation-resistant” leasing technologies). The key point to appreciate is that John Howard got most of his ideas on greenhouse policy from the Bush administration, and was always out to please. Expanding Australia’s role in the nuclear industry was not George Bush’s idea, but the GNEP opportunity and the added sense of urgency did fall off the back of Dubya’s truck.

That said, it fell into very receptive hands. Few people outside the Liberal Party appreciate just what an article of faith support for nuclear power has become in conservative ranks. Of course, the Liberal Party has its hawks who believe we should not close off the option of a nuclear weapons program. This view is strongly held in the broader neo-liberal movement as well (see, for example, the paper by the Centre for Independent Studies in early 2007, “Australia and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” which suggests Australia should keep its options open). Then there are the anti-greens who just love the idea of force-feeding environmentalists nuclear power irrespective of whether it makes financial sense. 

The main constituency for nuclear power in the Liberal Party, however, is found among those who see this as an issue of economic freedom: to them, if uranium can be legally mined, no limits should be placed on this. This view rarely bubbled to the surface while there was bipartisan support for the three-mines policy, but it was there nonetheless, and Howard knew it. In a sense, unlocking the shackles on Australia’s nuclear industry was unfinished business for Howard. So, when his 2004 Energy White Paper was released, it was a puzzle with one piece missing – an unfinished master plan to delay greenhouse emissions cuts and protect the fossil-fuel sector. It didn’t matter a great deal whether nuclear power was ever going to be viable – it was the principle of “economic freedom” that mattered. Thus, even if Howard had no confidence that nuclear power stations would ever be built on his watch, he relished the prospect of being the party leader who finally turned the nation down the nuclear path.

Unlike many who assumed otherwise, Howard also knew that supporting an expanded nuclear industry would not worry those whose interests his response to climate change was designed to protect – the fossil-fuel lobby. The two big uranium producers (BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto) were also in the coal and aluminium games. As far as they were concerned, greater Australian involvement in uranium exports and the GNEP was good for business – it potentially opened up new markets. Neither company considered uranium enrichment or nuclear power viable propositions in Australia, so their aluminium and coal businesses in Australia would be unaffected by Howard’s embrace of nuclear power. Similarly, the electricity generators were largely ambivalent about Howard’s nuclear conversion – none of their members could make nuclear power stack up. The only Australian businesses telling Howard they could make it work were close Liberal Party associates – people like the former party treasurer Ron Walker and longtime fundraiser and powerbroker Hugh Morgan. Morgan was also one of the few talking up the potential role Australia could play as a long-term storage and disposal site for spent nuclear fuel worldwide. So the pro-nuclear position would impress the right people and upset none of the wrong people.

These factors all coincided to present Howard with what he saw as a great political opportunity – short and long term. In the long term, he could complete the master plan left unfinished in the 2004 Energy White Paper. He could go down in history as the prime minister who finally bit the bullet on nuclear energy. It wasn’t about actually cutting Australia’s greenhouse emissions – as the Switkowski report would later show, our emissions would still be 70 per cent above 1990 levels in 2050 even with twenty-five nuclear power stations. In the short term, however, it could be used to wedge the Labor Party on uranium mining, it created what Howard called an “exquisite dilemma” for the Greens, it would be warmly welcomed by the mining industry, it would be hailed by neo-liberals. It would lend credence to Howard’s feigned conversion on climate change. Nuclear power could be sold as part of a domestic agenda – another low-emissions option to go with “clean coal,” another technology option that bought time.

Ian Lowe’s essay demonstrates a keen understanding of the politics behind Howard’s response to climate change. Lowe correctly characterises many aspects of the political intent behind Howard’s nuclear conversion, but unlike other observers he seems to have appreciated the long-term game: even if Howard was not serious about building nuclear power stations in the near future, the process of softening up Australia for nuclear power had to be taken seriously. In Reaction Time, Lowe also shows a fine grasp of the seriousness of the challenge climate change presents to this country. I share his optimism that deep cuts in Australia’s emissions need not involve any cut in the quality of life that we currently enjoy. There is a great deal of evidence to this effect, suggesting that continued prosperity and wellbeing are entirely compatible with an effective response to climate change, so long as the political will is there. 

Increasingly, I share Lowe’s pessimism about the environmental, economic, technical and social viability of nuclear power. Reaction Time leaves me even more sceptical about the capacity of nuclear power to make a significant contribution to deep cuts in emissions by mid century, globally and in Australia. Lowe raises a host of security and proliferation issues that have not been adequately answered by the proponents of nuclear power. His comments also make an inconvenient question for Australia even harder to ignore: is it sufficient to justify uranium mining on the grounds that we have no right to dictate to the world how they should cut emissions – especially developing countries with relatively few options? Can we really hide behind the argument that if we don’t supply the uranium, someone else will? At some point, our moral obligation to the planet and to future generations is likely to overwhelm these arguments, and it may happen sooner than we think with coal as well as uranium.

These are hard questions for the incoming Rudd government and for the country, but I am left pondering the extraordinary climate-change double standard John Howard maintained when it came to the issues of emissions targets on the one hand and nuclear power on the other. He saw fit to avoid any long-term commitment to reduce Australia’s greenhouse-gas emissions on the basis that it was premature to commit to a target before doing the economic homework. This ignored a pile of research showing that Australia could halve its emissions and its economy would more than treble by mid century. Yet with nuclear power, no such homework was required before John Howard saw fit to declare nuclear power the cleanest and greenest option of all. This not only preceded what the Switkowski report would later find, it also ignored the various issues raised in Lowe’s Quarterly Essay – most of which still need answering. 


Guy Pearse is the author of High and Dry. He joined the Liberal Party in 1989 and was a speech-writer for former environment minister Robert Hill. He has also been an industry lobbyist, consultant and spin doctor. 


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 27, Reaction Time. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 28, Exit Right.


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