Sunday, June 08, 2003

Nuclear Power?

This winter’s power crisis brought on a kind of mid winter silly season amongst the country’s politicians. ACT energy spokesman Ken Shirley has already advocated a rethink on our current ban on nuclear energy as a solution to future energy shortages.

Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton, while quick to point out that this is not Labour policy, has also suggested that New Zealand’s nuclear policy might change in the fullness of time. He went on to qualify this by saying that “there needs to be some demonstrable progress in the disposal of spent nuclear fuel.” That is all well and good but I can’t help thinking that this is an argument we shouldn’t be having.

Back in 1978, at the height of “Think Big” the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power Generation published their report. While they believed that a nuclear programme was economically feasible there were two important points that required further consideration. a) Finding a safe site in a country as tectonically active as New Zealand to build a nuclear plant, and b) finding somewhere to dispose of the resulting highly radioactive nuclear waste. As far as I know nothing has changed on this front in the 25 years since this report was released, and until we can find the solution to these problems there is no way we can consider nuclear power. I am reasonably certain that Ken Shirley has not thought this through.

The report suggested that we would need at least one site in the North Island and one site in the South Island. But where would we put them? Its not uncommon for reactors to be situated close to urban areas but ideally the reactors would be in a fairly sparsely populated area for safety reasons. Another consideration is that they would have to be situated away from agricultural land to avoid it becoming contaminated in the event of accidental release of radioactive material (our hard earned markets overseas would not be that keen on getting a dose of caesium with their milk and butter).

If you want to avoid big ugly cooling towers then the nuclear plant needs a large water source. We can’t use any of our rivers without harming the river ecosystem through thermal pollution which means that the plants would have to either be coastal, or situated on a natural or man made lake.

The biggest consideration of course is the fact that there really isn’t anywhere in NZ that is safe from earthquakes so this really narrows down the number of suitable sites. Otago, Southland and Areas from the Waikato north probably have the lowest earthquake risk.

Because we, rather fortuitously, haven’t had a large damaging earthquake in recent times, people tend to hugely underestimate the risk. Its worth considering this excerpt from the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences website.

The Alpine Fault, which runs for about 600km up the spine of the South Island […] has ruptured four times in the past 900 years, each time producing an earthquake of about magnitude 8. Approximate rupture dates are 1717AD, 1620AD, 1450 AD, and 1100AD. […] The fault has a high probability of rupturing in the next 40 years. The rupture will produce one of the biggest earthquakes since European settlement of New Zealand, and it will have a major impact on the lives of many people.

Although nuclear plants are routinely built in places like Japan and California I think building one in NZ and especially one in the South Island is inviting calamity.

The other consideration is the question of what to do with the waste. The royal commission had no real answers for this and suggested that this problem had to be solved before we could seriously consider a nuclear program. Unless Ken Shirley is offering his own backyard as a burial site this problem is still with us.

International law prevents us from burying the waste at sea so ideally we would want to bury it somewhere geologically stable where it can’t leach into ground water…which basically rules out the whole of New Zealand. The ideal solution is to send it to another more geologically stable country like Australia. But exporting your waste problem to someone else is pretty unethical and the Australians are having enough problems burying their own nuclear waste. They sure as hell wouldn’t be keen to take ours.

There are other problems not mentioned in the Royal Commission report. Although we have a small amount of uranium in the Buller Gorge area, it's never been considered economic to mine it. This means that all of the reactor fuel would have to be imported from overseas. When we have enough coal to last us for a thousand years or so and we create jobs and benefit the economy when we extract it, why go nuclear? What about the safety issue? After September 11th this is suddenly an important consideration... do we have the ability to transport and store large quantities of radioactive material securely? Probably not.

Ideally I would like to see us use sustainable forms of energy such as wind power, but if we are talking about a straight out choice between coal and nuclear power, coal is the more sensible choice.

All of this of course misses the point. We did not have a power crisis solely because we didn’t have enough power stations. It occurred mainly because the system inherited from the previous government resulted in complete mismanagement of the South Island’s hydro storage. Jeanette Fitzsimons put it best when she said that the market reforms of the nineties had resulted in the invisible hand giving us the fingers.