Weatherill is right to seek a “social licence” on nuclear industry

Criticism of the State Government’s decision to turn to citizens’ juries for advice on our nuclear future overlooks the importance of gaining a “social licence” for such a momentous decision, writes Nathan Paine.

May 20, 2016, updated May 23, 2016
Photo: Ritchie B Tongo, EPA.

Photo: Ritchie B Tongo, EPA.

The long-awaited release of the Royal Commission’s Report into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle was an important step on the road to a sensible community debate in what is quite possibly the single largest economic decision South Australia has ever made.

This is why it was so deeply disappointing to read opinion pieces like Chris Kenny’s (Sunday Mail, May 14), where he basically called the Premier weak for not just flicking the switch on a nuclear future for South Australia. These types of comments are both ill-informed and unhelpful to the debate.

While it is true, and I agree, that we elect politicians to make decisions, the one facing South Australia about a high-level nuclear waste facility cannot be put in the same basket as decisions about O-Bahn routes, speed limits or the myriad other decisions government has to make on an annual basis.

Last month, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Committee for Adelaide’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Industry Participation Tour, where a group of 10 representatives of industry, along with Adrian Pederick, Member for Hammond, visited repository facilities in Finland, France and the UK. During the trip we met with a wide variety of people and companies involved in all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.

From what we heard, and what we saw, there is no doubt in my mind that the Royal Commission’s report is spot-on. South Australia can safely participate in the nuclear fuel cycle, we can help make the world a safer place and we can enjoy a significant financial return for doing so.

But any assumption that this is a decision that rests solely on the shoulders of our current Premier or the current Government is just plain wrong.

For starters, there will be legislative changes required at the state and federal level, meaning any decision to move ahead will require the support of both parties in both Parliaments. This will bring into play the leaders of both parties in Federal Parliament and, of course, Liberal leader Steven Marshall. This is a question of such import that bipartisan support at all levels will be a must.

The one key takeaway message, from all of the experts and punters we met on the tour, was the critical importance of gaining a social licence before we proceed. In every circumstance, this was the first and foremost consideration before nuclear projects were commenced. This involved communicating with the public, gaining their support, and finding a site that was volunteered – all that before starting.

In the UK, they have gone through this five-year engagement process twice and failed. They are about to start a third time.

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In every country, how they measured community support was different, and so it will be in South Australia. There is no perfect measure on this count. Should it be done by opinion poll, a referendum-style vote or Citizens’ Jury? Each has its merits and negatives.

For example, a referendum may seem like a good idea as every South Australian gets a direct say, but it will inevitably become overtly political: how do you distil a complex, mature discussion into a media campaign? Yet, a single opinion poll or multiple polls is not enough.

The Citizens’ Jury process, when combined with broader community consultation, seems like a sensible approach to enable a mature and complex discussion while engaging with people across the community.

Like it or not, this is a decision that will impact South Australia for hundreds of years, across many generations. And therefore community support must be tested and a social licence granted before a decision is made.

As I mentioned before, once you see the technologies and processes involved, one can be left in no doubt that developing a global nuclear waste repository is safe, that we can make the world a better and safer place by storing used nuclear fuel, and that we can build an R&D industry around a repository and make a lot of money by doing so. In my mind that means that we should absolutely do it.

However, it is not my decision alone, and nor is it the Premier’s alone – it is a decision for all South Australians and the process put in place is as good as any to determine whether there is a social licence on this important issue.

Nathan Paine is a director of Adelaide-based consulting firm Property and Consulting Australia.

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