Tony Abbott and the Theology of Nuclear Power

“I have no theological objection” to nuclear power, said Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week. He was responding to his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s renewed push for the right’s favourite techno-fix, which she launched just before heading to Lima to continue the government’s wrecking-ball approach to climate action.

Abbott’s choice of words is fascinating. On the face of it, he is seeking to suggest that opposing nuclear power is a faith-based, rather than rational, view. Given that nuclear power has been shown repeatedly to be too slow, too costly and too risky to work as a climate solution (see, for instance, here and here), nothing could be further from the truth. It is, in fact, the right’s consistent promotion of nuclear that is underpinned by several right wing articles of faith. It’s worth unpacking this credo, because it reveals what’s really going on when nuclear power is raised.

The first tenet of the faith is a truly theological one, based on a one-eyed reading of the Bible:

“And God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

The American Christian right has long promoted this line from Genesis 1:28 as a biblical critique of environmentalism. God is telling them, they believe, that we humans are entitled to do whatever we like with the Earth and its resources. There is, of course, a very different Biblical view. Thea Ormerod of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, among others, talks about the concept of “stewardship,” and the responsibility to look after God’s creation.

But the “dominion mandate” dovetails so neatly with the modern industrial idea that humanity is separate from and dominant over nature that it has become a powerful aspect of the western materialist creation story.

Nuclear power fits perfectly with this world view. Splitting the atom is the apogee of human dominance over nature. And, given its enormous and persistent waste problem, nuclear power is only acceptable if you believe that it is our right to pollute as we please.

“Mad Monk” Tony Abbott, who trained to be a Catholic priest before entering politics, has explicitly referred to the dominion mandate—most notably in a speech about forestry early this year. Clearly, this theology influences his views on nuclear power.

The second tenet of the faith is not canonical, unless you believe Jesus was making an ironic statement when he threw the money-lenders out of the temple. But Tony Abbott and his ilk display an increasingly blind faith in corporate capitalism that has developed a distinctly theological aura. While it is reasonable to reject climate science, and acceptable to deny declining reef health, it is heresy to question whether handing ever more power to corporate interests will benefit the rest of us.

The privatization of profit and socialization of risk inherent in nuclear power only makes economic sense if you believe in the divine right of corporations. With multi-billion dollar contract blowouts in construction and decommissioning, the refusal of private insurance companies to cover risk, and a waste stream that will need to be managed for many times longer than our civilisation has so far existed, it’s basically a complex wealth transfer from citizens to corporations.

But nuclear power’s great attraction for those who subscribe to this particular faith is that it would maintain the corporate grip on energy infrastructure at a time when diversified and distributed wind and solar systems threaten to democratize energy supply. Energy regulators the world over are facing increasingly panicked demands from beleaguered fossil fuel companies to staunch the loss of market share as more and more people realize that decentralized renewables make sense. In parts of the USA, there are even proposals to criminalize going off the grid.

In this context, nuclear power is a godsend.

The third and final tenet is the central one of conservative ideology—that change is difficult, dangerous, and unnecessary. This, as Naomi Klein’s latest book This Changes Everything points out, is what makes climate change so threatening for the right. The clear message of accelerating global warming caused by the fuels that have allowed industrial capitalism to develop is that we need a radical change in direction.

If you want to deal with climate change, but your worldview won’t let you contemplate changing the way we use energy, the way we consume, or the way our society is structured, then nuclear power provides a neat solution. It suggests that we can tackle the crisis without really changing anything. This is the attitude taken by the great majority of politicians and commentators, of course. Abbott won election last year claiming to respect climate science but attacking any effort to deal with it that would have the slightest impact on energy prices or our consumerist way of life. Australia’s Labor Party, which had been in power, only introduced a decent suite of policies because it needed the support of the Greens Party. It continues to argue for action on climate change while promoting the expansion of the coal and coal seam gas industries. Indeed, former Labor politicians Bob Hawke and Martin Ferguson are Australia’s two biggest proponents of nuclear power.

Conservative ideology pervades our entire climate and energy debate in Australia, as in the USA. Even the majority of those who publicly acknowledge the need to tackle the crisis reject the idea that we need to change anything in order to do so. Nuclear power is the Deus Ex Machina which makes them believe this is possible.

A pity it’s not true. Not even the International Energy Agency believes it, seeing nuclear as a small part of an energy mix dominated by efficiency and renewables over the coming decades.

But then neither, frankly, do many of its advocates.

Advocating for nuclear power, for many on the right, is not about actually promoting its use. It’s far more important as a weapon in the culture wars, as a symbol that buttresses their three key articles of faith: that “man” has dominion over nature; that corporate might makes right; and that change must be avoided.

Opposition to nuclear power is, I would emphasize, a rational position. The evidence is stacked against it. A suite of renewable energy options can be rolled out faster and cheaper and more safely, and they can supply our energy needs—so long as we also change our profligate lifestyles.

But it is also an ethical position, based on the view that we need to stop living as if there is no tomorrow, or there will be no tomorrow; that we can and should live as though all of us on this planet, human and non-human, now and in the future, matter.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared at The Guardian on December 1.

Tim Hollo is an environmentalist and musician and the founder of Green Music Australia, and was formerly the Communications Director for Australian Greens Leader Christine Milne.