Jessica Urwin reviews Ian Lowe’s new book, Long Half-life: The Nuclear Industry in Australia (Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2021), $34.99, 248 pp.
The long half-life of radioactive materials has presented a fundamental challenge to generations of scientists, politicians, and national and global communities alike. With a half-life of up to 4.5 billion years for uranium-238, the legacies of nuclear tests, uranium mining and radioactive waste management linger. It is Australia’s intimacy with the nuclear that Ian Lowe hopes to untangle in his new book Long Half-life: The Nuclear Industry in Australia, his latest contribution in a series of endeavours to enlighten the public on Australia’s ill-conceived pursuit of this industry.
The perplexity that surrounds radioactivity is central to Lowe’s work. Early in the piece, he quips that the long half-life of uranium baffles politicians as their ‘time horizon[s] rarely extend … beyond this year’s budget or next year’s election’ (p. 1). But it is not just long half-lives that induce trepidation. Lowe notes that meta-data on the effects of radioactivity is lacking and scientists have never been able to confidently agree on its degree of danger. As scientific opinions differ wildly on many aspects of the nuclear, confusion reigns. In response, laypeople – minimally informed and bewildered by the mixed messages – fall in the middle of the mess. The tendency has been for ‘people to choose the one [opinion] they would prefer to be right’ (p. 27). This, Lowe implies throughout, has been the case since the dawn of the nuclear age in Australia, guiding arguments both for and against the nuclear industry since its emergence in the 1950s.
But it is nuclear energy, rather than the nuclear industry writ large, that most concerns Lowe in this work. Despite nuclear energy presenting itself periodically as a ‘cleaner’ and ‘cheaper’ alternative to fossil fuels since as early as the 1950s, its use was (and is) indivisible from other uses of the nuclear. Lowe argues that the ill-fated British nuclear tests held in Australia (1952-63) ensured that questions of the viability of nuclear energy were entwined with desires for nuclear weapons (p. 42). Such intimacy between energy and weaponry persists. Lowe evokes this by placing this debate in its contemporary context: earlier this year, the Doomsday clock moved the closest it has ever been to midnight in response to the determination that the biggest threats to humankind in 2021 are nuclear weapons and climate change (p. 186). Lowe shows that nuclear energy sits at the nexus of these threats, as it always has.
But, further to this, and from the beginning of Long Half-life, it is clear that Lowe does not believe nuclear energy is economically viable. This will come as little shock to Lowe’s target audience: an already environmentally-conscious and presumably anti-nuclear one. Lowe uses Long Half-life to platform renewable energy as an alternative to the physically, environmentally, and financially damaging nuclear option. In doing so, he weaves together arguments against the nuclear with a call (to the Australian Government especially) to do something meaningful about climate change. Lowe draws upon his expertise in physics and environmental science to assure his reader that, while it once may have been, nuclear is not the answer to Australia’s current problems.
By placing our nuclear past in conversation with the current threat from anthropogenic climate change, Lowe provides insightful social commentary. However, it is easy to forget while reading Long-half life that it has been marketed by the publisher as a ‘history’, specifically a ‘social and political history of Australia’s role in the nuclear industry’. While reading, I was struck that the chapter on the development of global nuclear politics and the beginning of the Cold War was afforded seven pages, and only three endnotes. On the other hand, contemporary debates in South Australia regarding the disposal of nuclear waste are generously given nearly thirty. Yet there was little acknowledgement of the historic efforts of activists to overturn previous dump proposals in South Australia, most notably the 1998 National Waste Repository floated by the Howard Government.
Lowe deals with the contemporary politics of the nuclear in Australia in some depth (albeit omitting key scholars on the nuclear such as Wayne Reynolds and relying a little heavy-handedly on former-diplomat Richard Broinowski’s Fact or Fission? for historical analysis). However, the lived experience of the nuclear is markedly absent. In Long Half-life the human element of this story is mostly limited to the male politicians and scientists integrally involved in policy. Those most impacted by this policy dilemma are unfortunately lost among reports, scientific debates and statistics, with only vague mentions of the various communities who have pushed back against the nuclear, generation after generation.
This is not to say that Long Half-life is not a worthwhile book. Rather, it has been potentially mismarketed. To sell this book as a ‘social’ history is a disservice to what Lowe has done within its pages, chiefly in illuminating the debates surrounding the nuclear industry from the perspective of someone intimately familiar with it. I agree with Monash University Press’ assertion that Lowe is ‘uniquely qualified to tell this story’. His status as a ‘nuclear expert’ is undeniable. And, as one makes their way through Long Half-life, it becomes increasingly clear that it has been written from the perspective of someone who fears for the consequences of his generation’s actions on those to come.
Ultimately, Long Half-life is a treatise on how to consider the adverse effects of our actions. Indeed, Dave Sweeney and Peter Garrett endorse this volume as a ‘cautionary tale’ and a ‘clarion call for sanity’. And so, in keeping with its overall themes, Lowe concludes Long Half-life with a powerful call to arms: ‘[o]ur decisions are creating the future in which our descendants will live. I believe we should be working to give them the legacy of a clean and secure future, not one clouded by radioactive waste and fear of nuclear war’ (p. 208). Effective social history or not, it is hard to argue with that.