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Australian icon Dick Smith has lashed out at the government's energy policies, describing our economy as "extremely vulnerable" and calling for the support of nuclear energy.

“Australia’s economy could grind to a halt in a matter of days if there was a major disruption to the world’s energy markets,” Smith said today.

"The government isn't looking at anything long-term, because that's unpopular politically," the entrepreneur told iTWire. "I think we're going to get ourselves into a position where we're going to have real problems with energy security, we have no real stockpiles of oil."

“With Australia sourcing more than 80% of its crude oil needs from overseas, I believe we must be one of the world’s most vulnerable economies when it comes to fuel security.

“Our governments have been incredibly slack when it comes to ensuring Australia has an effective stockpile of liquid fuels. Our hospitals and emergency services would last less than a week if there is a serious problem with Singapore’s oil refineries."

Smith has spent the past year investigating Australia’s energy options for a major ABC documentary to screen this week.

"In my documentary I look at the different options and I think if we're going to be burning coal, we need to look at nuclear energy seriously," he told iTWire.

"I think the debate needs to happen, I think we need the green movement to start supporting nuclear, because to move to renewables in my estimation would be so expensive, it would basically be unavoidable.

"As long as you don't get a nuclear reactor built by the old Soviet Union, or you don't build it on an earthquake zone, it can be very safe. 80% of France's energy comes from nuclear, it's where we buy our best food and champagne and wines, and it's all grown around nuclear power stations.

“I’m worried that we are not being realistic about our growing energy needs or taking the right steps to prepare for the future when the world will become increasingly desperate for power,” he said

“I’m certain the era of cheap energy, which has built the modern economy, is over. What comes next? We don't know, but it is bound to be much more expensive."

Smith says that domestic energy prices have more than doubled in the past five years and will double again soon, not because Australia lacks energy resources, but because our gas and coal industry now focuses almost entirely on export markets.

As the world’s biggest coal exporter and soon to be the world’s biggest gas exporter, Australia is set to become an energy super-power, bigger even than Saudi Arabia. “And world markets means we will be paying world prices,” says Smith.

This is leading to some acute problems in the very near future. With so much investment going into export facilities, domestic supplies are dwindling.

“There is the very real chance that NSW, for instance, could face severe gas shortages as soon as 2015,” he says.

Given the serious issues faced regarding energy supplies and the damage burning fossil fuels might cause to the environment, Smith is calling for a reconsideration of Australia’s ban on nuclear energy.

“We can't on the one hand maintain our position as the world’s major uranium supplier while continuing to pretend that nuclear is not a viable alternative to burning dirty coal and gas. It doesn't make sense.”

Smith is urging a fresh look at all our energy options, and is also supporting the development of a billion dollar solar-thermal power station at Port Augusta in South Australia.

The scheme is backed by the local community as well as the operators of the town’s aging coal fired power station.

“We need to be bold if we are to become a world leader in alternative energy for the future,” he says.

“But I’m worried that out governments don't have the vision for big projects like the Snowy
Mountains Scheme anymore.”

Given what he has seen, Smith has traded in his petrol-powered car for an electric vehicle powered entirely by solar panels, but he admits this expensive option is not possible for average Australians.

“I’m probably one of the country’s biggest individual energy users, so I have a real interest in this subject”, he says.

One day he hopes even his aircraft might be powered by fuel made from waste products, having visited a pilot plant near Newcastle that is already producing high quality oil entirely from waste sawdust.

“I believe Australia has some tremendous opportunities to build a sustainable energy future, but we just aren’t making the right decisions. None of our options will bring cheaper energy, I’m afraid, but putting off the hard decisions will only make things worse. I hope energy will be debated properly in the coming election—but I doubt it,” he warns.

Smith told iTWire his next plans were to look at growth and its effects on Australia.

"I'd like to look at growth, our whole economy relies on growth and that's a crock, you can't have perpetual growth it's a finite world. We have to start looking at running our economic system without that type of growth."

The documentary 'Ten Bucks a Litre' will be airing on ABC 1 at 8.30pm this Thursday 1 August.

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David Swan

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David Swan is a tech journalist from Melbourne and is iTWire's Associate Editor. Having started off as a games reviewer at the tender age of 14, he now has a degree in Journalism from RMIT (with Honours) and owns basically every gadget under the sun. You can email him at david.swan@itwire.com or follow him at twitter.com/mrdavidswan

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