Local government talks nuclear

What do our grass-roots leaders think about nuclear power?

As electricity shortages bite, the level of government usually most concerned with rates, rubbish and roads has raised the spectre of nuclear power at a national level.

A motion to call on the federal government to remove restrictions to progressing nuclear energy in Australia has recently been defeated by a narrow margin at the National General Assembly in Canberra.

But the heated debate included a claim from one councillor he wouldn’t mind if it was in his own backyard.

Delegates from Australia’s 537 councils took part in the June 19-22 conference, billed by its organisers the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) as “the largest most influential local government conference in Australia”.

Motion number 52, submitted by Gunnedah Shire Council in north-west New South Wales, called on the federal government to “remove restrictions preventing the development of nuclear energy as a viable option in the production of base-load electricity following the decommissioning of coal-fired power stations throughout Australia”.

Gunnedah Mayor Jamie Chaffey told delegates the decommissioning of power stations was coinciding with the rise of renewable energy.

Read more: Energy crisis: top Australian experts explain how to escape

“These renewables are unable to deliver reliable base-load power 24 hours a day, seven days a week, therefore putting at risk our social and economic well-being due to the potential power outage to domestic supply which we’re seeing quite regularly,” Chaffey said.

“Australia has an abundance of uranium as a fuel source. Nuclear power production has developed exponentially since its early days and is now considered to be safe and reeliable with nations such as Germany and France leading the way.

“It is time for the Australian Government to allow an informed and mature debate on this subject.

“Further, the federal government needs to remove legislative restrictions so that investment proposals and opportunities can be explored on our shores.”

The plea brought an emotional response from Inner West (Sydney) Councillor Mark Drury, who quoted the 2021-22 CSIRO GenCost report.

“Let’s not go through this again, delegates,” Drury said.

“Let us not repeat the mistakes of the last 10 years. Let us not sing from the Mineral Council songsheet. Let us move on.

“Interestingly, the restriction Gunnedah wants to remove is the 1999 [Prime Minister John] Howard ban on ministers considering nuclear power. Since 1999, no Liberal prime minister has changed that. I know Albo [Prime Minister Anthony Albanese] won’t.

“Why? Because nuclear power is expensive. It is really, really expensive.”

Gladstone Mayor Matt Burnett said even people who supported nuclear energy had told him they did not want it in their own backyards.

He quoted the 2018 CSIRO GenCost report that stated by 2050, nuclear energy would cost $16,000 per kilowatt to produce, while solar energy would cost $600 per kilowatt.

“The same report identified it would take 9.4 years before we saw a nuclear generation plant in this country,” Burnett said. “In context, in the Gladstone region, with our beautiful deepwater harbour and our industrial port, the Gladstone Port Corporation estimates we’ve got upwards of 2,500 wind towers coming into the Gladstone Port over the next 10 years.”

Read more: Nuclear power in Australia: is it a good idea?

Councillor Thomas Weyrich, from the Murray River Council in NSW’s Southern Riverina, accused speakers against the motion of “scaremongering”.

Thomas said electricity prices in the United States were “five to eight times cheaper” than in Australia.

“You can put it in my backyard,” he said.

“Chernobyl and Fukushima – there’s reasons why those things happened, and it was incompetence at all levels.

“Windmills on top of hills won’t do it. The sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow every day of the year.

“This is the only way forward.”

ALGA president Linda Scott, who was chairing the session of the National General Assembly, described the issue as “emotional and heated” before calling for a vote.

The motion was defeated 109 to 93 votes.

The construction and operation of nuclear power stations was prohibited in Australia in 1998.

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