Fork in the Road, (or), How Anti-Nuclear Forces Played South Australia Like a Harp
Ben Heard, 25 July 2017
On one of my last visits to the United States, in a town called San Luis Obispo, I found myself here, at a fork in the road, carrying my daughter.
I’m looking one way, she’s looking another. But she’s going where I take her because I’m carrying her.
We carry the future with every decision we take. It’s our greatest responsibility.
In our discussions over whether this state should further explore opportunities in the nuclear fuel cycle, we have lost sight of this. We have allowed what was a strong process to be dismantled piece by piece by the aggressive activism of a small, vocal group of ideological opponents.
Let me take you back to the beginning.
On April 1st 2015, a couple of hundred people attended an event organized by Greens MLC Mark Parnell, at the RiAus Science centre in Adelaide. They came to listen to four speakers talk about nuclear power.
The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission had been called less than two months ago and had not yet began taking evidence.
At this event, one of the speakers was Craig Wilkins, head of the Conservation Council of South Australia. He is also a long-time former staffer for none other than Mark Parnell.
As Wilkins opened his presentation he told his audience about the interest that has been apparent in the opportunities in the nuclear fuel cycle in these terms:
‘It has felt like I am standing in between a mob of footy players at the end of season trip, and a keg of beer with a sign saying ‘drink me and make yourself more attractive and smarter’.
His audience laughs. He then plays a clip from the Simpsons about a shoddy monorail salesman.
Before any evidence had been given to the Royal Commission, Wilkins told his audience:
‘so every time you read a ‘Tiser editorial about this grand vision, just think ‘Monorail’.
Another of the speakers was Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe, former head of the Australian Conversation Foundation. Among a litany of half-truths, platitudes and misleading statements Professor Lowe tells the audience that a generation IV fast reactor
‘can explode in the manner of a nuclear bomb’.
They can’t. No one has or ever would design a nuclear reactor that can explode in the manner of a nuclear bomb. It’s either unforgivable ignorance for someone of Lowe’s standing and capabilities or a lie, but either way it’s typical.
In a respectable audience, Lowe wears a veneer of respectability. When he’s with his people, we see the ideologue he really is.
Someone, somewhere in this whole publicly funded process, made the mistake of believing that if we do the honourable thing and invite these people to participate in a process, they will behave with honour.
That was naïve. Whoever gave that advice and whoever took it fundamentally does not understand the grotesque distortion of the anti-nuclear mindset.
There is no honour. They are working, full time, to destroy anything that might yield progress in the beneficial uses of nuclear technologies.
They will do and say whatever they can get away with. Truth, honesty, integrity, simply don’t matter.
This meeting in April was activists preparing to go to war.
They are so convinced by their own righteousness that the ends justify the means.
Consider for example this contribution from No Dump Alliance, a blatantly misleading document in relation to the transport of nuclear material.
Shown in black are sections of statements cherry picked by the author, David Noonan. Shown in orange is the essential context from the source deliberately omitted by Noonan.
This is nothing short of freelance bullshit artistry.
After endorsing the No Dump Alliance, after having issued one report and commissioned two more reports attacking both the process and the outcomes of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, the Conservation Council of South Australia, Friends of the Earth, and Mothers for a Sustainable South Australia were all given seats at the table for guiding Citizens Jury 2.
These groups should have been given a ultimatum: directly and publicly denounce the tactics so obvious in the work of No Dump Alliance and distance yourselves from that group and eschew all such tactics yourselves. If you won’t do so, you forgo your role in guiding the Citizen’s Jury, for that responsibility is incompatible with such dishonesty.
They were not given this ultimatum of course because we have entered an age where we are too frightened to say bad things about environmental groups. They know that. They count on that.
They joined the stakeholder reference group for a process they had openly set out to destroy and worked it to their advantage. These stakeholders used their influence to ensure that ANSTO, the CSIRO and SA Health could not nominate witnesses for the Citizen’s Jury 2.
A stakeholder they worked hard to make sure was heard was The Australia Institute, a think tank led by Richard Dennis, who was previously a senior strategic advisor to Bob Brown of the Australian Greens. It is also the organisation that was paid, twice, by the Conservation Council of South Australia to prepare reports undermining the findings of the Royal Commission. It pays to take a closer look at their work.
In February 2016, just days before the Royal Commission was to hand down draft findings, The Australia Institute released a report criticizing the submission prepared by me with a team of authors for the Office of Senator Sean Edwards.
Our submission was prepared by a team of three specialists, and had been reviewed by five external reviewers. It was an update of previous work that had three external expert reviewers, selected by the client, independent of us. It went on to be published in a policy journal from the Australian National University, with a further two blind peer reviewers.
The report from The Australia Institute had a sole author, Dan Gilchrist. His qualifications are not stated, his bio is not included, and he is not listed as a member of staff. The report was not reviewed by Rod Campbell, their director of research, nor Richard Dennis, their chief economist. When I pressed Gilchrist on the matter of review he said:
'I didn't have formal reviewers. I got some friends to read it to make sure it was readable. There was no input about technical or other detail'.
It was The Australia Institute who were commissioned the following month by Craig Wilkins to release criticism of the economics of the nuclear fuel cycle Royal Commission. A report by non-experts, bought and paid for by an anti-nuclear activist organisation.
These were the stakeholders that were granted extensive air time with 350 South Australian lay people about the economics of the nuclear fuel cycle, and they were there largely thanks to the influence of the very people who paid for their opinions.
Sure enough, they managed to convince a majority of those South Australians that there was no credible market in accepting used nuclear fuel.
This is Myra Razali. She is the manager for Stakeholder Engagement for the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation. She is only the latest in the many people from the global nuclear industry who have clearly affirmed to me that were a service in used fuel management available, they would want to speak seriously about that.
The man seated to my right in this photo is Daniel Njoroge, an energy economist from a Kenyan University, who presented on the progress East African nations are making toward developing nuclear sectors. His response was the same.
While these are anecdotes, they are the same anecdotes you will hear from any nuclear professional asking this question in the global nuclear community. They are consistent with my published research findings, the research findings of Jacobs MCM, and the research findings of the Nuclear Economics Consulting Group.
But it was The Australia Institute, with no experience, no publication track record, no credibility and no peer review, who breezed in from Canberra have air time with our Citizen’s Jury.
Meanwhile, Mark Parnell joined the Joint Committee to review the Royal Commission findings. He took part in a taxpayer funded fact-finding mission. He announced this with a t-shirt and a tea towel that co-opted the South Australian brand logo and announced ‘No Way for SA’. While on this taxpayer funded trip, Mark Parnell met with an anarchist group. The very next day this group accosted the South Australian delegation and prevented them from entering a site.
Yet this week, Mark Parnell wants to reinstate blocks to any government money being spent talking any further about it. He claims that public money has been wasted, having happily spent public money on his own travel around the world, with an openly stated intention to block any possible progress.
He cause was greatly aided on the final day of the second Citizen’s Jury. On that day, those 350 South Australians, given six days to grapple with one of the more complicated topics in the world, and given a yes/no question, said no.
We forget that just three days before this happened, Parnell attempted to have the Citizen’s Jury disbanded on grounds of a tainted process, presumably fearing an outcome he didn’t want. Since the findings were delivered he has been a steadfast supporter of the jury process, demonstrating again the cynicism of the anti-nuclear mindset.
Months later, after the news of the jury outcome had died down, the Consultation and Response Agency Advisory Board, who provided independent oversight of the Citizen’s Jury, handed down their final report. By now the media lost all interest, and that’s a shame because this is what it said.
In the second Citizen’s Jury
- The number of participants in the jury was too large. It’s of no statistical valididty, but is large enough that interest groups form within the jury, while another section of the jury simply becomes disengaged.
- The board observed ‘forceful lobbying’ by these internal interest groups
- It ran a poll at the end of the jury process, which is against the entire principle of deliberative democracy and the poll was not secret
- The selection process of the jurors was prone to bias, particularly a bias of self-selection
They said and this is a direct quote,
‘The lone or minority voice becomes overshadowed, and a dissenting stand is therefore certainly not for the faint at heart’.
This process was gamed from start to finish. Our State Opposition went immediately to water, subsequently backfilling it’s position with spurious economic claims that, as we showed in this report, are directly contradicted by expert evidence.
Our government drew a line and held it but now seems to be beating a retreat. Largely on this jury process our state may walk away from probably the greatest environmental and industrial opportunity it will ever be presented with.
Because make no mistake, this process, this potential opportunity for South Australia, it is not dying, it is being killed, and the people killing it have names.
Who among us is going to stick up for the thousands of South Australians who did participate honourably? Because representative polling tells us the level of support for continuing to explore the opportunity of managing used nuclear fuel GREW over the course of this process to be just one point shy of total opposition, with many South Australian’s unsure or needing to know more.
If we grant victory to those who set out from day one to destroy this opportunity it will be a message for decades to come: don’t try anything too difficult in South Australia.
If we let them win, they will know that the process that has unfolded here can be deployed against any other opportunity for South Australia in future.
What sort of opportunities are we talking about? Well, let me tell you about a Canadian company called Terrestrial Energy.
Terrestrial Energy are developing a molten salt small nuclear reactor. It will provide outlet temperatures of over 600 degrees C, making it suitable for decarbonising a range of industrial applications. They are on track for first deployment in the 2020s, with an industrial board that now boasts several of north America’s largest utilities.
The design is approximately six times more efficient per unit of mined uranium, and being a molten salt fuel designed to operate at atmospheric pressure, the safety case is achieved at far lower cost with lesser engineering requirements.
The price point Terrestrial Energy is targeting is US $60 MWh-1, approximately AU$90 MWh. Based on my own modelling, at that price, this technology take over creation of reliable low carbon energy supplies. It would be cheaper to over-build these reliable plants and run them at lower average capacity factor than to build more variable wind generation.
Terrestrial Energy made a submission to the Royal Commission. Here were there conclusions:
‘Terrestrial Energy would welcome the opportunity to expand our research at ANSTO with respect to online fuel reprocessing... Terrestrial Energy would be pleased to fund this research’.
‘South Australia provides a potentially attractive base of operations for assembly-line manufacturing as a launch pad for Asian deployment of IMSR units…. Terrestrial Energy would like to discuss siting such a facility in South Australia’.
‘Some other advanced nuclear infrastructure, particularly centralised facilities for the recycling of nuclear fuel, would provide important and enticing synergies… The collective pull of intellectual capital toward South Australia will itself become an attractive feature of this jurisdiction’.
They basically didn’t get a call back.
In the time since Terrestrial Energy made its submission it has completed its series A funding; announced its engagement with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Regulator; received a $5.7 million grant from the Canadian government; been awarded a first and then a second voucher under the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear from the United States department of energy, informed the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its licensing plans; it has advanced it’s loan guarantee with the US Department of Energy as well as commenced a feasibility study for siting the first reactor.
But remember folks: just think ‘monorail’.
Undeterred and also finding it hard to believe our seeming lack of interest, Ray Johnstone, formerly of Lockheed Martin and now of Terrestrial Energy, paid an additional visit to South Australia just a few months ago. He was granted a meeting.
Terrestrial Energy is just one of dozens of companies in one of the most exciting technology spaces in the world right now, advanced nuclear development. Batteries will store a little bit of energy, dirty or clean; advanced nuclear reactors will make a lot of clean energy. Clean energy for reliable electricity; heat for industry; electricity for small settlements, off-grid applications like mining and mineral beneficiation.
One of the clearest calls from the nascent advanced nuclear sector is a responsible jurisdiction in which to undertake an easier pathway through final testing and prototyping. Australia, with a well-recognized science and technology organisation, a respected regulator and safeguards office, could be that destination. This could be appended to the receipt of used nuclear fuel, which could become feedstock for many of these advanced reactor designs. We could be part of making global solutions, instead of just buying mature solutions from off-shore.
But right now we are saying ‘no’. The fortunes of our state are being dictated by a cabal of anti-nuclear activists.
Who is going to stand up for the environment itself? Bright New World has been working to tie long time conservation funding, clearly earmarked and set aside, to any and all further progress in this investigation, including a share of revenues of any eventual project to fund state-wide, world leading, and scientifically base conservation practice.
Funding our parks. Purchasing and rehabilitation of land. Proper control of weed and feral animal species. Custodial payments to farmers for land care projects. Genetic management and reintroduction of endangered species.
Where is the Conservation Council on a concept like this? Trying to kill the possibility of it ever happening. Because at the end of the day they care less about conservation than they do about stopping progress in nuclear.
Conservation is about making progress. They are not interested in progress. They are interested in protest. And when they have won their protest, they will go back to complaining about the lack of durable funding for conservation.
The opportunity in the nuclear fuel cycle is more than knocking but believe me, the international community is getting the message. They will not try and kick down the door if it is clear they are not welcome and right now, that’s the message they are beginning to get.
They will walk away.
We get to decide whether that happens. The opportunity is not dying it is being killed and apathy will be the final twist of the knife.
Bright New World is a registered environmental not-for-profit, born and based here in South Australia. We fight for the environment and we form our positions based on science and evidence.
We know what we are up against when we fight FOR nuclear technology but the science of climate change and energy and the imperatives of global human development and conservation are too firm to ignore: we need more and better nuclear power this century.
South Australia still has a chance to be a part of making that happen.
Getting there will mean looking our activist community in the eye and holding them to just a fraction of the standards to which they presume to hold others.
We have to do that on behalf of those we are carrying.
That’s a small and necessary effort for what could be transformative for the global and local environment and the South Australian economy.