The Liberal-Nationals Coalition (LNP) opposition party recently announced plans to build Australia’s first nuclear power plants as early as 2035, arguing the government’s policies for decarbonizing the economy solely with renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and totally unproven green hydrogen would not work.

In response, Labor politicians and the Union movement launched a wave of childish and misleading attack ads against the Coalition’s policy, predominantly highlighting the supposed safety risks posed by nuclear energy.

Channelling the imagery of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant from American cartoon sitcom The Simpsons, Labor assistant minister Andrew Leigh shared a manipulated depiction of a three-eyed Blinky Bill standing in front of a nuclear reactor.

The ACTU took a similar line of attack, providing free stickers to members featuring The Simpsons character Blinky, the three-eyed fish, and emblazoned with the tag “Danger Dutton” alongside radioactive symbols.

Also using The Simpsons references was Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan, sharing a doctored image of radiation-affected animals in the state’s Gippsland region, a proposed site for nuclear reactors under the Coalition’s proposal.

Speaking on Thursday morning, Anthony Albanese also rubbished the Coalition’s nuclear power plan, describing it as a “fantasy”.

“Instead of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this is ‘Peter Dutton and the seven nuclear reactors’,” the Prime Minister told ABC Radio.

Peter Dutton’s calm and positive response to all this juvenile nonsense laid down the battlelines: “I’m very happy for the election to be a referendum on energy, on nuclear, on power prices, on lights going out, on who has a sustainable pathway for our country going forward.”

One thing is clear, if the election is going to be resolved on the issue of nuclear power safety, then Peter Dutton and the LNP should win and form our next government.

Facts speak for themselves – as can be clearly seen from the chart below.

The Labor and Unions scare campaign relies almost entirely on the well-publicised disasters at Chernobyl in the USSR way back in 1986 and Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

In April 1986, the core of one of the four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine melted down and exploded. It happened during the final years leading up to the dissolution of the USSR Communist government when virtually no money was being spent on maintenance of key infrastructure.

In March 2011, an accident occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Ōkuma, Fukushima, Japan. This accident was caused by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami – the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan’s history. It was not a failure of the plant itself.

So, what can we learn from these events?

Clearly, maintenance is a key necessity…..and building nuclear power plants in locations likely to be affected by earthquakes or tsunamis should be avoided.

The context and response to these disasters were very different, and this is reflected in what killed people in the aftermath.

Thirty people died during or very soon after the incident at Chernobyl. A further five died much later from cancer – but It’s unclear whether they were affected by radiation exposure. The USSR also allowed pasture to remain contaminated which adversely affected milk supplies likely leading to 15 deaths from thyroid cancer in later years.

Nobody died directly from the incident at Fukushima. However, in 2018, the Japanese government reported that one worker had since died from lung cancer likely as a result of radiation exposure from the event.

More people directly died from Chernobyl than from Fukushima for several reasons.

The first was reactor design. The nuclear reactors at Chernobyl were poorly designed to deal with this meltdown scenario. Its fatal RBMK reactor had no containment structure, allowing radioactive material to spill into the atmosphere.

Fukushima’s reactors did have steel-and-concrete containment structures, although it’s likely that at least one of these was also breached.

Crucially, the cooling systems of both plants worked very differently; at Chernobyl, the loss of cooling water as steam actually served to accelerate reactivity levels in the reactor core, creating a positive feedback loop toward the fatal explosion.

The opposite is true of Fukushima, where the reactivity reduced as temperatures rose, effectively operating as a self-shutdown measure.

The second factor was the government’s response.

In the case of Fukushima, the Japanese government responded quickly to the crisis, with evacuation efforts extending rapidly from a 3-kilometer (km) to a 10-km to a 20-km radius while the incident at the site continued to unfold.

In contrast, the response in the former Soviet Union was one of denial and secrecy.

It’s reported that in the days that followed the Chernobyl disaster, residents in surrounding areas were uninformed of the radioactive material in the air around them.

In fact, it took at least three days for the Soviet Union’s communist government to admit an accident had taken place, and only did so after radioactive sensors at a Swedish plant were triggered by dispersing radionuclides.

No energy source comes with zero negative impact. We often consider nuclear energy more dangerous than other sources because these low-frequency but highly visible events come to mind.

However, when we compare the death rates from nuclear energy to other sources, we see that it’s one of the safest.

The death rate from nuclear power is roughly comparable to that of most renewable energy technologies.

It should also be noted that the events at Chernobyl and Fukushima happened a long while ago – 38 and 13 years respectively. Nuclear energy technology, production and operational techniques have advanced hugely since then.

Nuclear power can clearly play a key role in a sustainable energy mix alongside renewables, gas, hydro and other energy sources, including clean coal utilising Clean Coal Technology (CCT) that’s especially of value to developing countries.

It should be very clear to all but the ignorant – and those who have a vested interest in taxpayer subsidized renewables – that nuclear energy is a reliable, zero-emissions, 24/7 baseload energy source …… and SAFE option.

Thanks to AP News, News.com.au, Our World in Data, and Johannes Leak for his cartoon.

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