Professor Corey Bradshaw is a mathematical ecologist who reasons that over-development and climate change have pushed the planet past the point of no return. To help him stay positive about the future he turns to yoga – And Generation 4 nuclear power.
Lainie Anderson sits with the Ashton resident for a super-charged One Hour With…
I recently read a quote of yours that says “If you ain’t pissing someone off, you ain’t doing it right…”
It’s actually not my quote, it’s from a cartoon, but I do espouse that point of view in science.
So who are you pissing off right now?
As far as I can tell, pretty much everyone. I’m hated equally by the corporatocracy and the Greenies. I take an empirical view of life – I let the numbers do the talking. Most people have a point of view or an ideology, and they stick with that ideology despite the evidence.
That’s interesting because my second question is ‘Why is climate change an ideological debate’?
Mainly, it’s due to the short-term interests of very powerful organisations and individuals.
Is real action inevitable?
It’s already taking place. Institutions from town councils to the federal government have institutionalised dealing with it. Even the [Abbott] government isn’t saying climate change doesn’t exist – they’re just not doing anything particularly useful about it. Some people dig their heels in, but it’s equivalent to saying the world is 6000 years old and flat. You don’t entertain those people because they’re pointless.
Can we lay claim to be leading on climate change?
The boat has sailed on leadership. Australia’s point of view should be that we have a good thing and we need to protect it. Take refugees – most are environmental refugees. We’d like to say the Arab Spring was caused by this or that, but fundamentally it’s about food and water shortages. There will be more and more of those refugees. We haven’t seen anything yet.
How tough is it for an ecologist like you to be constantly assessing evidence that shows how badly we’re affecting animal populations?
The sixth great extinction is happening right now. If there’s such a thing as a palaeontologist in two million years time and they dig through the earth and see a layer where lots of things went extinct, that’s us. Australia has lost more mammals in the last 200 years than any other place on the planet. We’ve lost over 40 per cent of our vegetation, of our forests in particular, and we’ve highly fragmented the rest.
You must have lost count of the times that you’ve heard debates about development versus the protection of a rare animal. Is it time to start caring for small individual species?
We needed to start 50 years ago. We’re already going to see centuries of extinctions, even if we stop all development tomorrow, just from the legacy effects. We’ve severely changed this continent, which for a relatively small population is quite an amazing feat.
If you rank countries by their absolute environmental footprint, we’re the ninth worst in the world. That’s including countries like China, America and Brazil. We’re one of the highest per capita water users in the world; one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitters. Australians are superlative wasters. ‘Boundless plains to share’ is in our national bloody anthem. They’re not boundless and they’re not all the same and we can’t farm like we did in Europe because we don’t have the soil structure and the nutrients.
How do you, with all your knowledge, not despair?
This year, in fact, I came to the conclusion that I am psychologically disturbed by my work. Like an emergency doctor or an ambo, every day you’re faced with death and destruction. For 20 years I’ve been seeing more and more evidence that things are going tits-up and we’re not doing a lot to fix it. Every metric we can possibly look at in the environment is on the decline, every single one. That affects you mentally.
How do you cope?
The first part was admitting it. I’ve talked to people about it and taken up things like yoga and meditation so that I do channel that negativity somewhere else. Another thing that drives me is my seven-year-old daughter. If I can give my kid an extra 10 years without a global resource war, for example, then I’ve done my job as both a parent and a scientist.
Do you feel you’ve had wins?
Yes, we’ve had wins and, remarkably, they’ve been based on the foundations of good science. One example was the stopping of shark culls in Western Australia. And it was an overwhelming amount of evidence plus a lot of political pressure that changed the government’s mind about slaughtering sharks for absolutely no reason except to give people a false sense of security.
Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve saved great white sharks in Australia from extinction but I’ve contributed to it and I feel good about that.
I think South Australia’s Royal Commission into the nuclear industry is partially because of work I’ve been involved with, too. If we take the numbers and ignore all the ideologies, it makes a lot of sense economically and in terms of climate change mitigation, safety and everything else.
Hence pissing off Greenies…
Pissing off people who are fundamentally opposed to the ‘N’ word, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that it can actually help the environment. And look, 10 years ago I was a fence-sitter when it came to nuclear energy. But I was aware of countries like France who have the lowest per capita emissions in the entire western world, and they have about 75 per cent nuclear penetration. In 20 years they went from almost entirely fossil fuels to the lowest emissions per capita in the OECD.
In a nutshell, why is nuclear a good idea for South Australia?
We have to find a way of replacing fossil fuels. Solar and wind will never provide enough instantaneous access to power. We shouldn’t be thinking about 100 per cent renewables, we should be thinking about zero per cent carbon. The only proven technology that does that is nuclear fission.
People get freaked out because they think of Chernobyl and Fukushima, but in essence those reactors were Model T Fords compared to the new hybrid Generation 4 models. Even if you took all the fatalities, including those from long-term radiation, nuclear power is still orders of magnitude safer than anything to do with coal or other fossil fuels – even including major accidents. There’s a lot of scaremongering about radiation, but you get more radiation standing outside a coal-fired power plant.
There are 430 commercial nuclear power reactors operating around the world today in 31 countries, providing 11 per cent of the world’s electricity. There are 70 more under construction and 160 planned over the next decade. Fifty-six countries including Australia operate 240 research reactors and there are eight countries with nuclear weapons capacity. It’s a very established industry. Many of those power reactors are Generation 3, which burn less than one per cent of the energy in uranium, so all that ‘waste’ is just poorly used fuel. Because of a step call pyroprocessing, in which that fuel is recycled, Generation 4 reactors can burn over 99 per cent of fuel.
We’ve gone from 99 per cent of fuel being left over, to only one per cent?
Yes! And its half-life is 300 years – not 300,000. Because the world has all this so-called nuclear waste – which should really now be dubbed ‘inefficiently burnt fuel’ – there are a lot of people who want to get rid of it. They will pay large sums of money for people to take it off their hands.
So without even digging uranium out of the ground we could use the leftovers from other countries?
If the entire world was run on Generation 4 reactors, including projections in energy demand, you could power the world for 300 to 1000 years without digging a single gram of uranium out of the ground. So what do you do in a geologically, politically stable place like Australia? You charge people to take back that Generation 3 nuclear waste. Then you build a pyroprocessing centre to produce Generation 4 fuel rods and you sell those back to the people who are building Generation 4 reactors.
And then with all that extra fuel, you build your own Generation 4 reactor and run it for free. Make no mistake, this Royal Commission was set up because there are some incredible opportunities to make a lot of money. And this state wants to make money.
So economics will drive it?
Yes, but then we’ll get all the environmental benefits, too. So we need to get out the information that it’s an extremely safe, highly lucrative and long-term sustainable option that would solve many of Australia’s problems within decades. We’ve just got to get past the two N words: ‘NIMBYism’ and ‘nuclear’.
Is evidence-based analysis and debate like this under threat because of funding cuts to science?
There’s a reason most of the PhD students in my lab aren’t from Australia. People in my lab can do maths and write English well, and I’m finding that on average the Australian students cannot, at least to the international standards that are required to do good science.
Every major technological scientific field requires really good mathematics, especially ecology where you’re dealing with chaotic systems. We are missing the boat – and as we cut science and maths and give that money to pastoral care programs linked to religious organisations or climate change denial think tanks – we’re never going to get ahead. It’s scary.
How do we stack up in the Adelaide Hills in terms of the ecology?
Because you see the region’s vineyards and pine trees and patches of bushland, it’s very beautiful. But ecologically it’s a basket case. It’s infested with weeds. There are a lot of feral animals and the patches of bush, apart from around Morialta and Cleland, are too small to sustain large populations of birds. So we’ve had massive extinctions of birds, we’ve lost most of the original wildlife.
Native koalas went extinct 100,000 years ago. The ones you see today were introduced and they’re basically all first cousins. They don’t have the genetic variability to withstand major changes or disease. It’s just going to take one event to knock them on the head.
Gawd. So what’s the world going to look like in 20 years?
Twenty years will look fairly similar to today. There will be more degradation and resource issues and extinctions, but it won’t be a catastrophe. To me a catastrophe is not noticing something’s bad.
It’s fascinating but I’ve got to say it’s all pretty depressing too. Give us something to hope for!
Well the nuclear debate is positive. And it’s a relative thing anyway. It’s not going to be Utopia but we can make choices to make our future relatively better. Will that do?
This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 issue of Adelaide Hills Magazine.