Asylum Seekers and the Destruction of Australian Values

Australia recently enacted a set of laws that are intended to stem the tide of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia’s northern shores. We also now have regular radio and television commercials – 24/7 – informing “friends and family” of citizens and residents that illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are not welcome, specifically “tell your friends and family they are not welcome here” (paraphrased). In fact, this media campaign – delivered in dulcet bass tones – emphasizes that not only are asylum seekers unwelcome, but they will be repatriated to Papua New Guinea (PNG) under a new deal between Australia and PNG (although recent news headlines suggest that this may be under review by PNG).

I take issue with this policy (and this oppressive media strategy) for several reasons.

Firstly, it sends the wrong message to Australia’s immigrant population, particularly from Asia. What is effectively being said is that the countries that many of our immigrant communities originate from (often unstable, politically complex and poor) only expatriate criminals and undesirables. “Tell your friends and family they are not welcome here.” Where is the social inclusion, where is the recognition of our multicultural heritage? Where is the understanding that a functioning sense of community stems from family stability and completeness?

Where is the recognition that Australia is no longer a bunch of white British settlers, but a vibrant and connected part of Asia? The fact that this is clearly part of electioneering by the ALP is even more disturbing.

Secondly, it is immoral to take the position that every person who arrives on our shores is merely a criminal or an opportunist. As a society we need to remain open to the idea that there are legitimate refugees and legitimate asylum seekers. If we are prepared to deploy our military forces to protect “human rights” (and all political modulations thereof) of Afghans and Iraqis, East Timorese and Vietnamese (yes, “that war”, remember?), then we have to be prepared for the human displacement that occurs as a consequence. When we send troops into a conflict zone and expect that the only human movement will be to adjacent borders, we have fundamentally failed to understand the modern world we live in.

Thirdly, with all of our technology, intelligence and legal process, surely we can delineate between a criminal and a genuine refugee. Perhaps when we make sweeping policies about the status of refugees, what we are really saying is that – immigration treaties with PNG aside – we don’t have enough regional integration and cooperation to make an effective determination. In other words, these kinds of draconian policies simply illustrate how weak a “citizen” we are in the Asia-Pacific community and little we understand the neighbours.

The “read-out” for our diplomatic and human rights success should be how the stem of refugees reduces because of effective regional inter-governmental cooperation and human rights intervention. That’s where we should be spending the money and the effort. The wasted billions that will be spent on pointless policies to curb the “flood” are merely addressing symptoms, not the fundamental problems.

Moreover, I say let them come. If they have no criminal record and if it can be shown that they cannot return to their country without persecution (thereby, frankly, legitimizing their claim of refugee status), then let them stay. It will put pressure on the government to be a part of improving regional human rights, to ensure that refugees are not refugees simply because the repercussions of deportation back home are too severe.

We should perhaps also acknowledge that the extraordinary risk these people take to come to our shores, says something about who they are and what they are made of. Yes, if they are criminals then turn them back, we shouldn’t be indiscriminate. But if they are just people looking for a better life, let’s use 1,000ds of kms of ocean as the litmus test of being worthy to stay and welcome them instead of persecuting them on unfamiliar soil. I’m not saying there isn’t a cost – but ten or twenty thousand refugees a year aren’t going to destroy the country. We have robust statistics that say a foreigner is more likely to start a business or launch an entrepreneurial venture than a local. Could a steady flow of (mostly young) people even be good for the economy and even diversify the labour market?

Mexicans in California and Eastern Europeans in the UK help to keep inflation down a point or two … why not us? Moreover, $4.6Bn to deter, intercept and process less than 20,000 refugees seems like an awfully ineffectual equation. That’s more than $230,000 per refugee???

As for the PNG situation – this is hilarious to me and it even underscores the government’s limited vision. Notwithstanding signs of cold feet, I think PNG would be very wise to take Australia’s refugees because it needs and wants to increase its population. It needs labour. It needs people to exploit its (enormous) natural resources. It needs to people grow its economy. Taking Australia’s “unwanted” could actually be a pretty savvy way of bringing people to a country that most people don’t have anywhere near the the top of their personal immigration list. It needs to have the blessing of the international community (which it currently does not) and it would need to be made to work effectively and humanely … but it could work.

Politically, this whole fiasco was certainly a wasted opportunity to build a stronger relationship with PNG, rather than position it as a just an alternative to Nauru. I suspect that the bad press PNG is getting will pressure the situation because it appears to the international community like a ‘disposal’ of human rights. My view is that the government should have given asylum seekers a choice. Either they can stay in Australia and put into an integration program (by that I mean health, language, education) as quickly as possible – with some performance metrics attached to it (like passing a basic English test within 12 months) – or the government provides a stipend and an airfare to Port Moresby. Executed efficiently and cooperatively, it could possibly even be an effective part of Australia’s aid program to PNG where dollars would be leveraged with human capital. It would probably even have knock-on benefits to Australia’s economy because of the domestic investment and expertise that participates in PNG’s resources sector.

Their growth = our growth.

But most of all, I value the fact that Australia is diverse and multi-cultural. Maybe one day my son will fall in love with someone from Afghanistan or Myanmar. How would I explain to my children or my grandchildren that we failed to help people in need? Are Australians really that xenophobic and racist? This is an opportunity for Australia to really shine, to show that the Australian people are compassionate and embrace basic human rights, which in turn gives our county political currency and influence in the region in a manner far beyond that of digging stuff out of the desert and shipping it to China.

I write a lot about entrepreneurship and I believe in taking calculated risks to accomplish big outcomes. Perhaps this is the reason why the asylum seeker situation offends me – these people want the same thing, a high-risk chance of a better life.

Is it really so different?

The Dark Days of the Entrepreneur

One of the real professional joys of my life is teaching. Or at least trying to teach. I’m not sure I have yet evolved to stage where I can hold an audience in rapture with wise pontification and suede elbow patches, but I’m working on it. One of the areas that I talk a lot about is entrepreneurship – but not the technical “how to” aspects like launching a new venture, writing business plans or managing venture risk, you know – the usual B-School B.S.

I am mostly interested in the journey and experience of being an entrepreneur.

My friend Analisa recently circulated an article entitled “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship” on Facebook and it made me realize that this is a topic I have been meaning to blog about for some time. I particularly loved the image, which almost looks like a modern spin on something Hokusai would have painted (reproduced below). It is also an image of how I feel some days and anyone who has launched a new venture will instantaneously recognize the emotional spectrum projecting out from this graphic. Even the color scheme is spot-on.

Hokusai-like

It’s also great to see people talking about this stuff, without worrying about perceptions. There are a lot of macho entrepreneurs out there, that make it look like it’s easy, uncomplicated and stress-free. We need to talk about both what people go through as enterpreneurs, but also the psychology of entrepreneurs that makes the journey tough – on themselves and the people they love.

First and foremost, I enjoy what I do. I love the freedom and the epic challenges. I am grateful for the fact that I get to interact with an incredible diversity of talented people. Although I probably don’t say it often enough, I have a really superb team that I genuinely enjoy and appreciate working with (at least most days …). I feel that being an entrepreneur enables me to meaningfully connect with a very wide range of personalities because my “job” is fundamentally about engaging with people at an extremely high level – and fast.

The problem is that it is a stressful life (“good” and “bad” stress) and it can be hugely daunting sometimes. It is also an incredibly lonely existence – ironic, considering the hyper-intense level of human interaction. By lonely, I mean that even people that you love and are close to don’t necessarily understand how you really think and feel. Almost to the point of repetition and boredom, I say to my wife at moments of high stress “you just don’t understand me.” Her standard answer to me is “well then, Mr. (Dr?) People-Person, explain it to me?”

I can’t.

People who are not entrepreneurs can obviously understand that the “venture” is something more than a job – but how much more and in what way? Why can’t it just be switched off? Why is it so important? What does it compete for mental CPU cycles or personal attention? How does it energize and defeat us so resoundingly? Why do we keep going back for more punishment? It’s tough to articulate. By the way, I am also not trying to glorify entrepreneurs as being in some kind of class of their own, I actually think being an entrepreneur can often be a fairly dysfunctional state of being.

Before I had a kid, I used to tell people that starting a new venture was a bit like giving birth and raising a baby. Well, it’s not really true – in fact having a kid has made me realize that it’s a hell of a lot harder to be a good father and husband than a successful entrepreneur (at least for me). Utter crap really, and I must have sounded like a loser. But there are certainly elements of those emotional dynamics that are relevant – pensiveness, paranoia of something horrible happening, fear of “injury”, sometimes a lack of control and uncertainty about the future. Protectiveness – never letting your eye stray, even for a minute.

Those are the negatives (mental note to self, am I a “helicopter parent???”… hmmm quite possibly).

Hey, this blog is about the “Dark Days”, remember…? Cut me some slack.

For me, being an entrepreneur never stops. It’s exhausting. My life is a continuous possibility and it never rests, or rather I cannot switch it off. I am hard-wired. I know that on any given day, I could wake up and something marvellous happen. I also know some days that the tea leaves tell me that shit is going to hit the fan in a spectacular way. On those days, I feel like the guy in the picture – I want to curl up in a ball and stay under the sheets in a completely blacked-out room. I wouldn’t be surprised if some psychology researcher somewhere has found a correlation between entrepreneurial tendency and manic-depressive personalities. I have these moments of incredible highs, drive, energy, passion and stratospheric joy. Followed by darkness.

When I teach, I often get asked “what’s the hardest part of being an entrepreneur?” I suppose on behalf of my friends, family and better-half, I should answer (truthfully) something like “being an entrepreneur isn’t the tough part, it’s being married to one that’s the heartache.” My wife has a term for it – “being Komodo”, like the big sultry lizards that lounge around in the darkness of the jungle but volatile and ready to attack. That’s how I am when I am blue – I’m slow, I’m lethargic, I want to hide in the shadows … but I am also ready to bite bone-crushingly hard at provocation.

If I am honest, sometimes I am almost hungry for the emotional release to restart my engines again (in a non-violent way, of course).

True entrepreneurs can tolerate success and failure in large and equal measure and it is my opinion that this comes with a fair amount of personality complexity by necessity. Why? Because day-to-day life is a roller coaster and you have to rapidly internalize bad emotions and then rebound to fight another day. It is the fundamental nature of high-risk ventures that attracts us and gets our blood pumping – sometimes you win and sometimes you crash and burn, but it’s not necessarily an intuitive dynamic.

For example, success and achievement – at least for me – typically leads to prolonged periods of sadness, a sense of loss that comes with completion of an arduous task. Even depression. I am seldom overjoyed at completing a major task but I am usually giddy with delight and optimism at accomplishing the significant milestones that drive me closer to completion of a major task.

Odd eh? I guess I just love looking at horizon lines…

Conversely, failure seldom gets me down – in fact, my most spectacular failed ventures often came with a sense of relief, of clarity and understanding, of optimism that the slate has been cleared for the next adventure. Failure and setbacks also mean exciting problems to solve in order to get back on track and I am probably at my best when things are going fantastically pear-shaped. A strange resilience mechanism.

So that is my initial reflection on the Dark Days. It’s not just the experiential aspects of being an entrepreneur, it’s about somehow being wired differently. At least for me.

What are your thoughts? Experiences? Please share.

Australia’s tragi-comic electioneering : daily update

I promised, back when I commented on the closure of the Ford plant, that any kind of stupidity was possible in an election cycle. Well, today we have seen it in all of its glory with Rudd’s announcement of a $500m subsidy to the car industry. Certainly, in recent weeks, both the ALP and the Liberal-National coalition government (the “Coalition”) have made great strides in articulating how they plan to drive Australia into the ground.

ALP: $500m for the car industry

The car industry directly employs 45,000 people in Australia. According to FAPM – it indirectly drives a quarter of million jobs, but this is likely to be a bit of spin because roughly 65% of “direct” employment is in the components section of the industry, which has also application outside of the automotive space.

But let’s say it does employ 250,000 people.

As an average Australian, you just paid $2,000 per worker to keep the industry alive. For a lot of Australians, that is a significant amount of money. If you are a skeptic like me, and reckon it’s more like 50,000 jobs, then it’s $10,000 per worker. Post Tax.

What’s tragic about this, is that your money doesn’t actually go to guaranteeing the employment of “workers” – the standard ALP justification for the subsidies – it essentially goes to the balance sheet of global multi-national companies in order for them to be able to make the profits to justify maintaining what would otherwise be an unviable industry in Australia. In other words, your tax dollars are being sent offshore.

I promised you that stupidity was possible, Kev & Co. delivered it in spades.

Coalition: Scrap Mining Taxes, Scrap Carbon Taxes

… but, as Abbott has repeatedly stated, keep the expenditures/benefits in place.

How can it be?

Either this means that there will be austerity measures elsewhere (my guesses : healthcare, education, humane treatment of asylum seekers for a start) or Abbott’s government plans to borrow a lot of money during the next term. Certainly, sustained economic growth probably isn’t a realistic scenario. Years of comparative isolation from global fiscal turbulence is not serving the Australian people well in terms of the quality of decisions being made in light of global economic trends. In my view, the government is simply incapable of fathoming what is heading towards us because unlike their US and EU counterparts, they haven’t practically had to deal with it the past 5 years or so.

To me, it is also remarkable – verging on immoral – that an election campaign can be won on the basis of the promise to scrap taxation on mining. What does this mean for ordinary Australians?

Let me tell you in the most simple terms.

It means less revenue into the government coffers to provide you with quality services and infrastructure. Like health. Like education. Like roads and schools. Like public transport. Even “Australian” mining companies (like BHP) no longer contribute to the Australian economy the way they once did, so what it really means is that not only are fewer $s being retained in Australia for the benefit of Australians (and not just spent within a fiscal year, but invested for the future) but that once again, it’s about maximising the profits of a few companies. That’s not what governments should be doing – that’s what companies should be doing.

No changes to GST either, people. That’s not as good as it sounds, you know…though it is marginally more justifiable with the weakening of the Australian dollar and it’s probable impact on the retail/services sector.

But still. That is a dangerous election promise to make.

And the Carbon Tax. Why has this become such a dirty term (pardon the pun)? Yes – the Gillard government screwed it up and yes the Carbon Tax was not implemented or priced correctly, but it could be a very effective mechanism for driving industry reform and transforming efficiency. It could be of dramatic benefit to the country if it were (re)implemented correctly and could drive new industries that would eclipse the automotive industry in less than a decade. The problem with the Carbon Tax is that it is a “tax” – and that clashes with Coalition propaganda. For the avoidance of doubt, if anyone thinks that the cost of living (energy, for example) is going to get cheaper because this tax is abolished, they are delusional.

To Conclude…

I’m not even going to get started on gay marriage (recent shocking and inappropriate Abbott comments), asylum seekers (both governments are disgraceful) or environmental policy (non-existent as an election issue). Let’s just focus on the finances.

By the way, I’m not an economist and I don’t – as a general rule – care much for them, whatever their value may be. Neither am I some kind of dye-in-the-wool socialist. I just believe that to have the best future, the strongest economy, a prosperous society and peace – we need to have a bigger vision for Australia than propping unviable industries that are political vanguards (like the automotive industry). Moreover, our elected government needs to be strong (bold?) enough to claim the benefits of [responsible] exploitation of our Wide Brown Land for its people.

Today, and for tomorrow.

Honestly, it’s enough to make you vote Green.

Australia should stash the world’s nuclear waste

There aren’t too many topics that polarise discussion or incite more emotion than nuclear energy. For the nuclear industry, the events of the past few years have nothing short of remarkable. Between (tragic) disasters, the military nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and Iran, Germany’s abandonment of nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, and the planet’s overall growing energy needs – nuclear technology has had a lot of airplay.

Overall, I’m a big fan of nuclear energy because I think that it has technologically evolved to the point where it truly could be safe (socially safe is an entirely separate matter…). In the past couple of decades, a lot of ancillary advancement in construction technologies and material science have also been made that could really supercharge the nuclear industry and change the footprint from a Chernobyl or a Fukushima, into something much more compact and urban. Alongside other renewable “green” energies, nuclear energy could – if we chose to – start to displace coal and other hydrocarbons for electricity supply within a decade.

But I also agree that that the waste is a problem … though only to an extent.

Why this caveat? Well I remember a lecture I attended a few years ago where it was suggested that if you were to accumulate the lifetime energy consumption (everything) of an individual living in the “west” (let’s say broadly, US, UK, Canada or Australia) and present it in the form of typical emissions from a coal power station, it would amount to something like 6,000 train loads of compressed (liquid) CO2. The equivalent in nuclear waste from your typical U135 reactor is a disc 15 centimetres in diameter and 2mm thick. When you put it into that context, it’s a hell of a lot easier to find a place to stash a little disc than a very very long train (by the way, I’d love it if someone could substantiate this comparison for me).

It’s a great visual. Surely easier to bury the “disc”?

Australia has a lot of uranium – although uranium mining isn’t yet really big business. According a few reports I have been able to find, Australia exports about 8,000 tonnes of uranium oxide a year – roughly 85% of it going to the US, EU and Japan in equal measure. This amounts to about a $1 Bn business a year, though because of shifts in German and Japanese nuclear policy and fairly “stagnant” US nuclear industry, growth rate is on the decline. I suppose to counter this, there are opportunities to sell uranium to countries like India and Korea (South).

The really interesting thing is that Australia has 30-50% of the world’s uranium reserves alongside places like Canada and Kazakhstan. However, Australia has some attributes that make it rather different than other countries with a lot of uranium in the ground. It has a stable (if slightly dysfunctional) government, it is isolated, it is sparsely populated, it is mostly incredibly geologically stable and … drum roll… it is still comparatively proximal to the growth markets for which nuclear material could be transformational (i.e China).

As such, there is a real opportunity to take a more vertically integrated view of Australia’s uranium future. I personally believe that Australia could export enriched uranium products (and perhaps even one day thorium too – has a lot less problems in some ways) that are further up the value chain than just ore. For example, we could manufacture advanced ceramic composites that enable uranium to be stabilised and transported without needing coolants. However, what I really think is that Australia should repatriate the world’s nuclear waste and process, store and manage it.

This is obviously not a new idea and environmental groups have furiously rebuked he idea in the past. However, it really is a debate that should continue to be actively explored for a whole variety of very positive reasons that would possibly leave most conspiracy theorists and even some “big picture” environmentalists scratching their heads for a good reason to object. I am going to broadly segment these justifications into economic, technological, defence, environmental and moral categories.

Economic Justification

Building a nuclear management facility, probably somewhere in a remote corner of northern Australia, would be a major infrastructure project with few peers. Building and operating such a facility at the scale required to support the potential growth of the nuclear industry would be a major undertaking, probably able to justify the establishment of a community that would rival Darwin and possibly even eclipse it (not hard, it’s only a couple of hundred thousand people).

The revenue for managing nuclear waste could be enormous – most countries with nuclear energy or research capabilities have thousands of tonnes of transportable (i.e. stable) nuclear waste that is currently suboptimally stored. More importantly, if Australia could move up the value chain of processing and re-processing nuclear material, we might choose to implement a total “lifetime” (not the isotope lifetime, but rather the energy utility) strategy for disseminating nuclear material. Why export a few thousand tonnes of unrefined uranium when we could “lease” energy in the form of small pre-assembled nuclear cores with incredible energy densities that could be safely shipped around the world and then returned for reprocessing at the end of their production/service life?

Secondary industries could also spring from this activity. Waste can be recycled into useful isotopes for medical and industrial use, in massive demand the world over, but particularly growing Asia. So this is not just about exporting energy and importing waste, it’s about generating major secondary industries that could easily eclipse today’s miniscule uranium ore exports. One could even envisage actually turning this into a comprehensive nuclear technology offering that includes services – such as healthcare (yep – not all radiation is bad, some of it very effectively fights cancer).

Technological Justification

No matter what aspects of such a project you consider, it is going to involve huge technology development and will drive a massive investment in R&D. But not everything is going to have to be invented from scratch – it will also leverage considerable existing advanced expertise (by global standards) in mining, drilling, construction, etc. In some regards it’s a bit ideological, but Australia could use some nation-building projects that are truly transformational and that could tie the “second speed” economy to the “first speed” economy in a way never seen before. In my view, building cars (especially not Fords) and submarines are not examples of such a project.

This could be.

This kind of a massive scale project would touch just about every area of science and technology, would motivate both imported and home grown innovation and would even drive capacity through some of the toys we have (like a synchrotron) that are currently a bit idle and directionless (we shall see if ANSTO’s management of the synchrotron improves things). From a science policy vantage point, it would force Australia to look very closely at the buy vs build model for innovation and productivity in a way that the country has never done before, and much more closely ally ourselves with major research initiatives in other parts of the world. It could be a boon for attracting talent.

By the way, it’s all very well to be critical (as I often am) that our politicians don’t understand innovation. But to some extent, our politicians don’t understand innovation because relatively little home-grown innovation (as opposed to technologies purchased from abroad) has ever impacted the economy. As such there isn’t much of a case study to learn from. This could be changed.

Also, don’t just think about a nuclear processing facility as a bunker in some remote region of the country. Think about it as the industrial core of a super high-tech “nuclearopolis” in the Torrid Zone. Don’t build a compound, build a community that would be within spitting distance of places like Singapore, Malaysia and China – build an international airport (or put in place a bullet train to Darwin a couple of hours away). Sure the actual processing facility needs to be super-secure, etc. but the industry that could spring up around something like this could be incredible. In fact, I would argue that building a civilian infrastructure around it is possibly a fundamental part of making it secure.

Lastly, infrastructure. To make something like this secure is not just about barb wire, retinal scans and security patrols (and not just a defence matter, as per the next section) but about making the project self-sustainable. It will need energy itself – imagine solar farms, food and water too. It will require advanced construction and transport infrastructure can survive often harsh climates. It will require new strategies for urbanisation based on completely different ideals of industrial safety – standards, incidentally, that don’t just apply to nuclear materials, but may also be relevant to other types of advanced technologies as well, such as nanomaterials, specialty chemicals and biotechnology products. There could be lots of synergies for other industries.

Defence Justification

I have often written about the “shift” in power from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific – no doubt part of the “Asian Century” that is clearly of fundamental importance to Australia’s future. That we allow a greater US military presence in Australia in the face of an “awakening” China and perhaps also India, is evidence of this shift (however you may feel about it).

Australia’s northern coastline is particularly difficult to patrol – partially because of sheer expanse but also because the expenditure for larger scale security is probably hard to justify on economic grounds. Certainly, we never quite seem to spot asylum seekers or an off-course Chinese oil tanker until it is a bit late and they are washed up on a coral reef somewhere. My understanding is that in the event of a (entirely hypothetical and kind of ridiculous) invasion from, say, Indonesia, the military strategy would essentially be to abandon most of the country and retreat a few tanks and aircraft to the bottom right corner – a rough hypotenuse from Sydney to Melbourne (again, if there any experts reading this, correct me – but it seems logical).

Building a nuclear processing and storage footprint in the northern part of Australia would have some interesting implications for defence and the globe’s vested interest in Australia’s security. Presumably our various multi-lateral defence agreements currently cover most contingencies but actually having something worthy of defending on our northern border (sorry Darwin) does change the game a bit. One could even envisage a deep-water port where military vessels would actually dock to recycle nuclear materials – putting Australia on the map as part of a combined military supply chain and nuclear deterrent without actually having to establish a nuclear deterrent domestically. I am not suggesting, incidentally, that this be open purely to allies – rather it could also be a way for Australian to strengthen its ties with ASEAN/China too.

Clearly, if a lot of nuclear material is going to get shipped around S.E. Asia through the usual (already very congested) shipping channels, this is going to require some increased security as well. If defence treaties could be expanded to make patrolling our northern boundaries an international responsibility in order to secure and protect Australia’s nuclear processing infrastructure, this could have a dramatic impact on our ability to patrol and secure our northern frontier, essentially leveraging an already growing international presence in our backyard.

The bottom line is this – Australia is not really economically important enough to go to war over. I do believe that in the event of an act of aggression there would be an international response – and I am also one of those optimists that believes we increasingly live in a world where the “battle” can be based on dialog, rather than unleashing destruction. But I don’t think anyone is ever going to protect our country holistically, because it basically can’t be done. Therefore we need to create an international incentive for our northern maritime border to be absolutely secure.

Environmental Justification

Unlike Abbott, who thinks that it is ok for us to turn a blind eye to our responsibilities to improve the globe’s carbon footprint despite being a major coal exporter, I actually think that we have a case here of “those who can, should.” The plain fact of the matter is there are a lot of coal power stations in China that are going to burn Australian coal (for which we have something like 800 years of reserves based on projected energy consumption). If we could lower the global cost and risk of nuclear power by building infrastructure to manage waste materials, we could provide a real alternative.

And we should do it. Environmentalists should get up to speed on the technology and start practically understanding what the global impact is of our coal export industry.

Incidentally, for those people who think that building windmills and solar farms are the entire solution, the reality is that we need constant energy supplies to “reinforce” the bursty and intermittent output of most renewables, in most parts of the world. Advancements in energy storage technology can partially solve this but that has huge cost as well – at least with current technology.

So I personally feel that taking a step back and looking at this from a global (i.e. planetary) vantage, this could be of huge environmental benefit for the world. It would also take a lot of wind out of the sails of the hydrocarbon industry and would likely drive more momentum towards renewables and a “carbon neutral” energy landscape. Especially, as I have previously said, there is no technological reason why small nuclear installations cannot be made perfectly safe.

Looking at it from a local/domestic environmental perspective, I concede that the issues are more complex. Most of the areas where you would want to geographically do something like this are highly sensitive ecosystems. I am quite certain that Native Rights would also (appropriately) come into the picture at some point, just as they have with most mining projects in Australia. Not an environmental issue, per se, but certainly important.

But then let’s also be clear. We have already proceeded with Ranger and Olympic Dam and these are major projects. Some of our larger deposits might actually be places where the kind of infrastructure I am proposing could be co-located. We needn’t necessarily enlarge the environmental footprint to build this sort of facility, though I concede that if we wanted to build an urban environment / tech ecosystem around it, that would have additional impact.

It’s a tough one.

I think, however, that providing the risks to nearby populations can be managed, food chains are not compromised, etc. it should be considered. I suppose if one wanted to go on the “sell” you could argue that in order to properly secure such a project, large buffer zones of land should be formalised as protected and uninhabited reserve. Perhaps this is an opportunity for environmentalists to cordon some very large national parks as part of a deal. Certainly, I’d like to see a bunch of nuclear terrorists try and trek through croc-infested mangrove swamps!

I do worry about shipping nuclear waste to Australia. A nuclear “spill” in our oceans might be 1000ds of times more catastrophic than an oil spill. I guess we’d have to understand that more, though the advantage of heavy isotopes is that they tend to … er… sink. Although now outlawed, a hell of a lot of nuclear waste has been dumped into the oceans – including by even more nefarious organisations than governments. This may not be such a big deal and may even, in the final analysis, make shipping oil look positively dirty.

Moral Justification

For me personally, the moral justification and the environmental justification are strongly entwined. However the most compelling argument is that if we are not willing to be part of the solution for managing nuclear waste, then we shouldn’t be part of the problem of creating it in the first place. I do think that there is a moral argument to being part of a global proliferation of safe, carbon-neutral energy and I think that our regional economic stability depends on it.

I personally struggle more with the idea that we are a major coal exporter without obviously attaching some sort of environmental premium (penalty?) to it, than the fact that we might want to store nuclear waste in Australia. I actually have less problem with exporting uranium than coal but I’d rather that we attached an equal environmental imperative. I remember a few years ago seeing vast coal trains in northern Queensland and questioning of myself what it meant in terms of Australia’s contribution to global warming. For anyone who thinks that our footprint is purely domestic consumption, they are morally misguided. Every brick of coal we export to China has an impact too, we just (conveniently) choose not to count it.

The question is really whether the moral justification actually undermines the business case. When we agree to sell uranium to, say, India and we require as part of the pricing structure for our exports that the waste be repatriated, do we simply no longer make ourselves cost effective as a uranium exporter? Or does the attraction of being able to safely stash everyone’s nuclear “trash” have a stand-alone market opportunity compared to the cost and risk of our prospective client’s domestic storage. Very interesting question that I will have to leave to the experts.

What I do know is that there are other countries who are thinking about doing this – for some of the same reasons. Mongolia also has some stable geology, some great mining expertise and comparative remoteness/low population density. But it’s also a young (though promising) democracy, is proximal to a lot of countries undergoing turbulent change and still carries some of the hallmarks of its corrupt communist legacy. Is that really the place we should be wanting to store nuclear material from a global security vantage? I suspect not.

Parting comments

I don’t think this is a slam-dunk by any means, and not without issues, but I think it is something that should be seriously considered and properly studied. Maybe I lack imagination but I can hardly think of a larger scale project with the opportunity to super-charge Australia’s economy but also create something of enormous international importance at the same time. I do, to an extent, believe in “nation building” projects and I’d like to see a focal point for R&D expenditure that actually did something of value to the economy. I also really like the idea of a northern technology frontier that has the potential to unify our “two speed” economy and increase our regional development relevance, particularly to fast-paced economies in Australia’s backyard.

Let us not forget that it was amidst enormous opposition that the second generation OPAL reactor went ahead after the decommissioning of Lucas Heights. There were lots of practical reasons why such infrastructure can be justified (medical, industrial, research, etc.) but the primary reason was to ensure that Australia maintained its seat at the IAEA – the prerequisite to which, is a functioning nuclear reactor. Why was this important? Well, perhaps not next year and perhaps not in the next decade, but at some point the nuclear industry is going to have a proper renaissance and when the time comes to reconsider policy on peaceful nuclear proliferation, Australia will want to have a seat at the table.

My question is, do we want to wait until then, or do we want take a leadership position that could cornerstone an energy, technological – and economic – transformation?

How to feel accomplishment?

I’ve always felt engaged by the world I live in. I definately have the capacity to marvel, admire and even occasionally stop and smell the roses. Having a little kid who points and queries every little thing also has the ability to reconnect you with the simple aspects of life (a bug, a tree, a puppy, a flower) that sometimes we don’t fully stop and appreciate.

Today, however, I saw something amazing. I happened to be at home this afternoon and I saw my son Max stand for the first time. Or at least, it was the first time that I had seen it. I also happened to ascertain that he was trying to get up and managed to whip my iPhone out in time.

Here is the action sequence, blurs ‘n all :

A Great Day (08Aug2013)

The look on his face when he stood, arms in the air, was so happy. Not proud, not smug, not cocky but joyful with the understanding that he had achieved something marvellous. Something special.

It was such a simple thing and yet such a profound moment for him. I almost felt a sense of jealousy at his pure joy – and then found myself asking myself (terrible sentance construction, sorry…) “when did I lose my ability to feel that sort of basic sense of accomplishment?”

I never attended my college graduation. I never collected my doctoral diploma. I’ve closed rounds of financing for companies – even sold companies – and simply gone home … and gone to work again the next day. I’ve won awards and not even bothered mentioning it to my wife.

When did I stop standing there, smiling a toothy grin at the world, with my hands in the air? Am I alone in asking this question?

Well, it’s not too late to make sure my son doesn’t follow his father’s dysfunctional ways. He got a VERY BIG HUG. We are raising him bilingually and when he sat down again, I exclaimed “molodets!” which is Russian for “well done” – an expression we use when he has done something good, accompanied by hand clapping.

With a big grin on his face, he clapped his hands and gave himself an applause. Well done, Son. I’m proud of you.

little champ

 

NYC Marathon Update – 3 Months to Go…

Back in late June I announced that I am running the New York Marathon to raise money for the Heart Foundation. You can find my fundraising page here.

Some of you have asked me how the training is going – presumably before you decide whether I am a safe bet for your sponsorship. The answer, overall, is good. My distances as improving – at the end of this month I will do a 25km “test run” but these days I routinely run 10-15kms without any pain in my back – a true testament to Tarryn my trainer who has been working on my core strength.

I’ve lost weight. In total 12 kgs so far (25lbs). I feel a lot better overall – though some days it’s hard to find the energy to work, run and be a Dad. My body’s demand for sleep is certainly doing combat with the hours I work. I have another 12-14 kgs to lose, so I am half way there.

Shhhh... don't frighten the dinosaurs!

Shhhh… don’t frighten the dinosaurs!

But above all else, getting regular decent exercise has made me a bit happier. My wife comments that I am a bit more relaxed these days, and that I am more playful with Max. Work has been stressful the last couple of months and I am quite sure that running has helped my brain to deal with everything. But I am also happy because so many friends and family have stepped up to encourage me with my mission of becoming a healthier person – and to help with the fundraising.

I am 42.3% of the way toward my fundraising goal. To date I have matched $3,458 of donations to the Heart Foundation. Please keep it coming! It’s a very worthwhile cause…