As a New Zealander interested in resource management planning I am aware of the debate that occasionally pops up about whether or not we should invest in nuclear power stations. It is a debate that gets plenty of air time when the hydroelectricity storage lakes in the South Island are running low and people, aware that coal is dirty, are keen to find an alternative power source to to feed our ever increasing energy demand. But every time I hear the debate starting up again, I wonder why we are having it when the answer is so clear cut. So, for lack of having a better topic to write about for this blog article, I am going to lay down the reasons why nuclear power will never be a starter in New Zealand.
First, we need to consider the process of nuclear power and the resources necessary for it. At the core of this problem is a very simple, yet at the same time fundamental issue: what nuclear agent do we use (uranium 235 or plutonium 238)? Whatever the answer may be it is going to have to come from overseas, as we don’t have either in quantities that can be sourced in New Zealand. This brings us to the next question, which is where to get the isotope from (we’ll use uranium for arguments sake)? Australia has significant uranium deposits on Aboriginal land, and there is a large mine at Jabiluka. Having found our source of uranium, it needs to be transported to New Zealand and therein lies a huge and probably immovable obstacle.
We are nuclear free. That alone may sink the entire project. Will New Zealander’s be prepared to sink their reputation as a nuclear free beacon of hope for a sustainable era of electricity generation, and more responsible resource use? I doubt it. Despite their apathy to politics, the younger generation of New Zealanders is no less anti-nuclear than its parents generation were. Some might remember the Long Mile reactor failure. Many will remember what happened at Chernobyl on 26 April 1986, when Reactor No. 4 had a catastrophic meltdown and who can forget the sight of the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor explosion last year in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami? Very probably it would be political suicide for a New Zealand Government to remove the ban on nuclear weapons and power generation in New Zealand.
But let us assume that – shock horror – it did somehow manage to be removed and that there is interest in nuclear power. If resource consent applications were to be filed to build a nuclear power station, it would raise a swag of other questions:
1) How would we process the uranium, and store it?
2) How would we supply coolant to the reactor so that it doesn’t turn into a New Zealand version of Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl? That would mean either building it near a big river or near the coast.
3) What would happen to the radioactive waste after use – do we ship it out of New Zealand or store it?
The above are just a few of the questions that the Assessment of Environmental Effects would need to answer. The coolant issue is a significant one because resource consents would need to be lodged to use water that might not be returning to the source in the same or better condition. In addition, what other infrastructure would be needed. As a nation with no existing nuclear infrastructure, we would need to start from scratch. Just getting these applications through the resource consent process would probably cost millions and involve intense legal battles probably going all the way to the Supreme Court.
The management by authorities overseas of the Chernobyl and Fukushima reactor disasters has been questionable at best. The Soviet authorities hid the full seriousness of the disaster at Reactor No. 4 and the thousands people who were made to evacuate Pripyat had to leave their entire lives behind and the ones that have been left behind have horrible deformities, struggle to find work and have a significantly reduced quality of life. Thousands of Japanese who used to live near Fukushima still have no idea when – if ever – they will go home again. Will they be able to grow crops there again. Will they have a usable drinking water supply? What if there is another big quake that further damages the reactors?
Last but not least, as Christchurch found out to its considerable detriment last year, we are a nation riddled with fault lines. 150-250 are known to exist around the country that pose a potential risk. The largest ones would generate shaking intensities that are likely to be felt in nearly every part of the country, and which would cause damage across numerous urban areas. Although modern nuclear power plants have an extensive system of safety mechanisms, as Japan found out last year, an extreme outside event such as a big quake can short circuit all of that with disastrous results. With the same certainty that we know darkness comes into a room after one switches the light out, we know that there will be another big quake in New Zealand eventually. When? Maybe tomorrow.
I personally do not see how New Zealand could possibly afford to have a nuclear power station in New Zealand. The Japanese and Russian experiences tell us that the authorities would probably stuff up the response. The financial cost of building the reactors will be enormous and the political cost might well bring down any Government brave enough – or stupid enough – to try. And as low as the risk in a well managed reactor of a meltdown might be the consequences are too awful to bear contemplating.
And at 0200 in the morning, I have better things to think about.