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Dutton’s nuclear dream takes a canny lesson from Lisa Simpson

Just like Lisa Simpson, Dutton knows where the real power lies.

Just like Lisa Simpson, Dutton knows where the real power lies.

In a favourite episode of iconic 1990s adult cartoon The Simpsons, progressive-minded daughter Lisa Simpson leads a folk song protest outside Springfield’s comically depicted nuclear power plant, complete with three-eyed fish in the nearby waterways.

As the plant owner and villain Mr Burns switches off the town’s electricity supply to blackmail citizens with safety and environmental concerns, Lisa sings “So we’ll march day and night by the big cooling tower. They have the plant, but we have the power.”

Lisa got it: It’s the latter that matters, regardless of whether you’re pro or anti-nuclear.

Likewise, the genesis of Australia’s current nuclear debate is an attempt to build electoral and political power, not an attempt to generate more electricity.

In a nation that hasn’t had a serious nuclear discussion for decades, the Coalition’s declaration that it will build seven nuclear reactors if it wins government brings with it a polarising contest.

It may just explode, given people know very little about what is involved, and are primed for big ideas on energy and cost of living in what has been a pretty unambitious national policy environment.

Experts from every relevant field and investors have been on a unity ticket for some time: Nuclear in Australia would be far too slow, ridiculously expensive, and come with too many legal, waste, workforce and safety issues to pull together even the most tenuous of business cases.

Even in well-established nuclear energy systems overseas, recent construction costs have blown out by multiples and timelines have doubled. In Australia, where we don’t have the workforce and expertise, it’s bonkers.

But the nuclear idea is far more popular than these realities might lead you to believe.

Many Australians are nervous about whether a renewable-dominated energy system can meet the demands of industry and ensure reliability. Many don’t want the necessary infrastructure anywhere near them.

Meanwhile, they want government to “just do something” to bring down prices and take charge. In this kind of landscape, a phenomenon of “solution bias” emerges, where people tend to support pretty much any potential solution to a complex or desperate problem, as long as they can believe it could work.

And they do believe it. In April, the Essential Report suggested a slim majority of 52 per cent supported developing nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity, with 31 per cent opposed. That’s a big turnaround from just five years ago, when in June 2019 39 per cent were in support and 44 per cent opposed. The Lowy Institute Poll suggests public support is stronger at 61 per cent.

This means that whether a future Coalition government could realistically bring its nuclear ambitions to fruition may be completely irrelevant to the immediate political impact, and at the next federal election.

The Coalition’s announcement taps into doubts about renewable energy reliability and certain local hostility to specific projects.

By providing a political alternative to the renewable-based system that is starting to roll out as ageing coal stations close, Dutton has laid the foundations of a debate that can be fought with misinformation and ideology instead of policy.

And by proposing a government-owned array of nuclear plants to be built on existing coal generation sites, a minimum of 10 years down the track, the Coalition has sidestepped difficult arguments about costs, environment and safety.

These factors combined; we can envisage a powerful set of talking points that could shift the dial on public attitudes to energy policy during an election.

No serious person is arguing nuclear is a short or even medium-term solution to our energy challenges, but an opposition leader looking to make a splash-and-grab play can, and unless the Albanese government acts quickly, he may succeed.

The Labor government will need to move quickly to present an alternate vision for our energy system that can respond to Australians’ very real and very immediate concerns.

Because just as Lisa Simpson serenaded Springfield’s community activists, Dutton is doing the same. He won’t need to build the plants to have the power.

Peter Stahel is a former Greens adviser and a director and co-owner of Essential, a progressive research and communications company

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