The nuclear option: will submarines be a Trojan Horse for reactors?

Scott Morrison tried to be very clear yesterday: Australia’s nuclear submarines would not be a Trojan Horse for a military or civilian nuclear program. That didn’t stop his announcement making people excited.

© Provided by Crikey nuclear

Within hours, the Minerals Council of Australia’s CEO Tania Constable called the move “an incredible opportunity for Australia’s economy”.

“Now that Australia is acquiring nuclear submarines which use small reactors, there is no reason why Australia should not be considering small modular reactors for civilian use,” she said.

© Provided by Crikey

Australia beats drums of war with nuclear submarine pivot

The council has been an influential pro-nuclear voice for many years. And it’s hardly alone. Nuclear power is immensely popular in the Coalition ranks, particularly among the Nationals. 

In 1998, Parliament passed laws effectively placing a moratorium on nuclear power. Ever since, the Coalition and the Minerals Council have pushed to repeal them. In 2019, Energy Minister Angus Taylor set up a parliamentary inquiry into ending the moratorium. The Coalition-dominated standing committee on the environment and energy recommended Australia partially lift it to allow small modular reactors.

© Provided by Crikey nuclear

Video: Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines in historic security pact with US and UK (Today)

Since then, the number of nuke-curious Coalition MPs has grown. By early this year two-thirds of Coalition MPs supported ending the moratorium. By June, Coalition ministers were talking about taking nuclear power to the election.

Another thing that happened in June that strengthened the nuclear push was the return of Barnaby Joyce as Nationals leader. In one of his first interviews as deputy prime minister, Joyce talked up the prospects of nuclear power, arguing it was Australia’s best path to net zero emissions. And last month, Nationals Senator Matt Canavan led another push to end the ban, claiming regional Queenslanders would be happy to have a reactor.

“Gladstone, I think, would support a nuclear power station with open arms because they want to keep their manufacturing jobs, their aluminium smelter, their refinery. There’s thousands of jobs there,” he said.

In parallel, the Minerals Council has campaigned hard for the ban to be lifted. Last year it started running Facebook and Instagram ads targeted at getting young people on board the nuclear energy train. 

In Crikey yesterday, Richard Tanter, a senior research associate at the Nautilus Institute and honorary professor in political science at the University of Melbourne, said he was concerned the submarine shift would be used to further strengthen the case for nuclear power.

“This will bolster the case for nuclear power in Australia and aid the deeply ailing uranium industry,” he said.

Of course, it will be decades before the promised nuclear submarines will be developed. And building a small modular reactor can take up to half a decade. Nuclear power takes a long time. 

Despite Morrison ruling it out yesterday, there’s very strong support for nuclear power within his party and among Coalition-aligned lobby groups. Yesterday’s announcement will clearly embolden them.

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