13 June 2024

Nuclear NOM powers an important conversation about Wagga's energy future

| Chris Roe
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MLC Wes Fang addresses WWCC over his comments regarding a nuclear future for Wagga

MLC Wes Fang addresses WWCC over his comments regarding a nuclear future for Wagga. Photo: Chris Roe.

Wagga Wagga City Council (WWCC) dipped a toe into the cloudy waters of the nuclear power debate this week as councillors and locals laid out the why’s and why-nots throughout an 80-minute discussion at Tuesday night’s meeting.

The lengthy debate was triggered by Green’s councillor Jenny McKinnon’s notice of motion (NOM) “Ruling out Nuclear for Wagga” calling for clarification on comments made in the NSW Upper House by Nationals MLC Wes Fang which she alleged called for “Nuclear for Wagga”.

While the NOM was voted down, Cr McKinnon did not back down on the importance of staging the conversation in a public forum.

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The official government Hansard transcript from 15 May shows that Mr Fang did make the statement as an interjection while debating the impact of the HumeLink energy transmission project on Southern NSW communities.

A total of four speakers addressed the council, including Mr Fang, who accused Ms McKinnon of “playing politics” and misrepresenting his comments.

MLC Wes Fang and Jenny McKinnon disagree on the merits of nuclear power but agree that it's an important conversation to have.

MLC Wes Fang and Jenny McKinnon disagree on the merits of nuclear power but agree that it’s an important conversation to have. Photo: Chris Roe.

Local advocate for nuclear power Paul Funnell was the first to speak against the motion and lamented “the anti-democratic forbidding of debate on nuclear power being enshrined in legislation” and what he called “hysterical, misleading, scaremongering” by the Greens.

“Rather than have open intelligent discussion and debate over the topic of the much-needed resource and nuclear power to provide cheap, reliable and, if it concerns you, carbon footprint, or carbon-free baseload power … they would prefer to have a cheap political shot … and decide the future for our community and nation, but whom they have not consulted.”

Mr Funnell expressed disappointment that more local leaders had not engaged with a forum on nuclear power held in Wagga last year and invited them to attend a second event planned for late July.

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The second speaker, South Australian academic and nuclear power researcher Dr Ben Heard, also spoke against the motion and dismissed the concerns raised as “not very well founded”.

He echoed Mr Funnell’s comments that the title Ruling out Nuclear for Wagga was a case of attempting “to speak for the community on this subject” before they had considered “some actual information”.

“It doesn’t do anything to protect Wagga; it denies a conversation in future on the topic,” he said before laying out some of the positive benefits of a nuclear future.

Peita Vincent, who is standing for Labor in the upcoming local government elections, was the first to speak in support of the motion and said she had been “dismayed” by Mr Fang’s comments.

“While I applaud Mr Fang for wanting to decarbonise the economy, I disagree that nuclear power is the way to achieve that,” she said, describing it as “bad policy”.

“By the nuclear industry’s own analysis, nuclear power stations take an average of 9.4 years to build. With no established domestic nuclear industry, the first nuclear power station here in Australia would almost certainly take far longer,” she said.

“This timeframe compares with the one to three years required to bring major wind and solar projects online. We simply don’t have a decade or two to wait for nuclear to slash climate pollution.”

Ms Vincent outlined the impact of historical radioactive disasters and cited the CSIRO’s recent conclusion that “nuclear energy is prohibitively expensive in Australia”.

Westinghouse’s planned AP300 small modular nuclear power reactors are being rolled out in the UK and Canada.

Westinghouse’s planned AP300 small modular nuclear power reactors are being rolled out in the UK and Canada. Photograph: Reuters.

As the final visiting speaker of the night, Mr Fang surprisingly spoke in support of the motion and urged the council to follow through on the call to write to him for further explanation.

Mr Fang is unapologetically pro-nuclear power but explained that the comment was made off the cuff and did not represent any official call to establish a reactor in the Riverina.

“By saying I would have one in my backyard, I was demonstrating how much faith I had in the emerging technology and in nuclear, and I did that because I was on the nuclear inquiry for the State Government in the previous term of parliament,” he said, explaining that he had examined the issue closely.

“There is no question that this technology has the ability to provide baseload power with zero carbon emissions.”

Mr Fang clarified that the comments were made as interjections in response to a quip that Wagga Wagga would receive more government funding if it was a designated Renewable Energy Zone [REZ].

“To be honest, I was probably speaking just to try and speak over somebody else and get under their skin,” he said.

“To try and portray it as advocacy to have a nuclear facility in Wagga is a bit of a stretch.”

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Mr Fang declared that nuclear energy was an important subject that should be part of a “mature conversation” and suggested that Cr McKinnon should have “phoned him” rather than brought it to the council.

As the councillors weighed in on the issue and it became clear that the NOM would not be supported, Cr McKinnon pointed out that, either way, it had sparked a valuable public discussion, rather than a private conversation with Mr Fang on the phone.

“I think far from shutting down debaters, as was implied by a few people, in fact, it’s opened up debate in the community and it has allowed several people to come here and put their point of view, which we really appreciate,” she said.

“There is a debate about energy that’s currently raging around the nation and that includes definite calls for nuclear as a serious consideration for this country.

“Personally, I do not support nuclear as a reasonable energy option.”

She echoed Ms Vincent’s comments about the prohibitive costs and the need to manage nuclear waste and the risks of radiation.

“A house brick size piece of waste is still radioactive, and it still has to be processed, and it still has to be stored. So no matter how small it is, it’s still just as radioactive.”

Cr McKinnon acknowledged that the title of the NOM could have better reflected her intent to spark discussion and expressed disappointment that some had chosen to make “personal attacks on me rather than to just address those issues”.

“My motion hasn’t been supported tonight … but just the fact that I might not have a chance of getting it through this council does not mean that I will not raise the difficult issues that need to be raised.”

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