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Going nuclear, and closing their eyes to expert advice on the urgency of climate action

Alison Barrett writes:

The Federal Opposition’s plans for nuclear energy have been slammed by health, medical and scientific experts as flawed, dangerous and a barrier to urgent climate action.

Concerns have also been raised about the impacts upon First Nations peoples’ health and wellbeing, and Country.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) today issued a statement outlining nine reasons why the organisation does not support nuclear energy as a means of decarbonising Australia’s stationary energy generation and mitigating climate change.

Nuclear energy cannot decarbonise the energy sector fast enough to avert catastrophic climate change, and distracts from and delays more reliable, safer and less costly existing and developing technologies, DEA said.

“All Australia’s energy needs can ultimately be met from renewable sources, in combination with storage technology and energy efficiencies.”

DEA said nuclear energy:

  • is unnecessary, uneconomical, and not flexible enough for changing energy needs
  • carries high health and safety risks
  • is a significant security risk
  • creates high-level radioactive waste, which cannot be safely disposed of and for which there is no known secure long-term storage
  • requires large amounts of water
  • is neither renewable nor a low emissions energy source, if the entire nuclear life cycle from mining fuel to decommissioning of the reactor is considered
  • emerges from the history of nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining on First Nations lands without consent, and may continue to disproportionately affect First Nations people.

First Nations’ rights

Michelle Isles, CEO of the Climate and Health Alliance, told Croakey that “nuclear power demand may further impact the rights of First Nations people”.

“For decades Australia’s desert regions have been used for uranium prospecting, mining and waste dumping and nuclear weapons testing without free, prior and informed consent from First Nations people,” she said.

Isles, who has been with DEA’s Dr Kate Wylie in Canberra this week to address the Senate Inquiry into the Middle Arm Industrial Precinct, told Croakey: “There are already plans to power Australia without harming human life and unfortunately the Dutton nuclear plan is both dangerous and flawed.”

World events are underlining the urgency of action to phase out fossil fuels, reduce emissions and scale up renewable energy.

This week alone has brought reports of more than 900 deaths from heat-related illness in the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as severe heatwaves in India and United States.

As we reported last week, focusing on nuclear energy has been long linked with climate denial. While Opposition leader Peter Dutton has said he is committed to net zero by 2050, the Coalition’s plan “would commit us to decades more of coal and gas, while we wait for nuclear to arrive”, Professor Emeritus Ian Lowe from the School of Environment and Science at Griffith University wrote in The Conversation.

“We would break our Paris Agreement undertaking to make deep cuts to emissions, and keep making climate change worse,” Lowe added.

Professor Martin Hensher, at University of Tasmania, told Croakey the Opposition’s plan, to build nuclear plants on the sites of existing coal-fired stations, “guarantees that we will burn coal for longer – or at the very least, rebuild new gas-fired plants alongside the nuclear plants to bridge the gap”.

We will inevitably produce higher emissions over coming decades than under current plans, hastening and worsening climate change, Hensher said. “We will continue to cause more preventable deaths and illness for longer from the resulting air pollution.

Winners and losers

Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said the winners from the Coalition’s nuclear proposal are the multinational coal and gas corporations that will keep polluting until well past mid-century, while Australians will suffer from worsening unnatural disasters due to climate pollution.

“Communities are being pummelled by heatwaves and dangerous bushfires one week, and extreme rainfall and flooding the next. Dutton’s scheme is: let the climate burn, let the mega fires burn, let the sea levels rise, let the heat become unbearable,” she said in a statement.

“Later is too late – we need clean energy now to slash climate pollution and keep our kids safe. With no workforce, no industry and no waste facilities, nuclear is a generation away in Australia. Nuclear reactors are a dangerous delay tactic that would mean climate pollution explodes in the next two decades.”

Annie Butler, Federal Secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation described nuclear power as “an unnecessary and risky gamble”.

“The notion of Australia becoming reliant on nuclear energy is a dangerous distraction from our considerable progress towards a much more climate and health-conscious renewable energy future,” she said in a statement provided to Croakey.

Butler also emphasised the immediate and long-term impacts associated with nuclear storage, waste and accidents.

“One of the primary health risks associated with nuclear power accidents beyond immediate and acute exposure to radiation is when nuclear material enters waterways and food sources,” she said.

“This can also occur due to accidents related to stored nuclear waste.

“Well known disasters including those at Chernobyl and Fukushima provide ample evidence for both the immediate and very long-term consequences of nuclear powerplant accidents. Evidence shows that even at lower doses, ionizing radiation can cause health effects such as cardiovascular disease and cataracts as well as cancer.”

Public health emergency

The Australian Health Promotion Association told Croakey the organisation “recognises that climate change is a public health emergency that requires ambitious, accelerated and wide-ranging action”.

“We advocate for policies that fulfil individuals’ and communities’ right to health, including actions that ensure access to healthy environments and environmental conditions that promote optimum health and wellbeing, now including for future generations,” AHPA said.

“We support investment in renewable energy sources and infrastructure, with an equitable and just transition that includes engagement with communities at the frontline.”

AHPA pointed to their submission to the National Health and Climate Strategy, where they support the Nationally Determined Contribution that specifies a reduction in national greenhouse gas emissions of 75 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2035 for all sectors, inclusive of healthcare and exports.

Croakey reached out to 20 health leaders or organisations in researching this story. Ten responded; several said they did not have capacity to respond in the timeframe we provided; and four provided a comment. The remaining 10 did not reply.

The Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners said they were unable to make a comment.

Concerns about media reporting of the issues at stake have been widely raised, including by senior journalists such as Geoff Kitney.

See Simon Holmes à Court’s list of 18 questions for journalists to ask about the policy.

Note from Croakey: Additional tweets were added after publication.


See Croakey’s archives on fossil fuels and public health

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