The devils energy: Nuclear power in New Zealand


Today in the Sunday Star Times I saw that columnist Damien Grant was suggesting that if New Zealand is serious about climate change, then we examine nuclear power again.

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s it looked like nuclear power might have a future in New Zealand. This however was before concerns about their impact on the environment became known – the emergencies at 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were all a decade or more away at this point.

Let us be honest here. Building a nuclear power plant faces huge technical, legal and environmental challenges to overcome. And even if they are overcome, the nuclear free reputation of New Zealand would be brought into question, the reputation that earned New Zealand a lot of respect in the 1980’s and 1990’s especially among small Pacific Island nations. These challenges are all going be examined in this article.

First, the political backlash from the left/centre-left would be ferocious. This is possibly worse than building another coal fired power station. There would be guaranteed protests on the streets, in any harbour any ship trying to bring fuel material into and along transportation corridors. Even the centre right are not hot on the idea. Only A.C.T. Leader David Seymour is remotely interested.

Second, the Resource Management Act has no specific provisions dealing with nuclear power, the potential environmental hazards of a spillage or leak of radioactive material – whether it is spent fuel or new fuel. A search of the words “nuclear” and “uranium” in the Act in the Government’s legislation website did not yield any results. “Radioactive” yielded results in Section 15C of the Act. Right here we have a major challenge. It is expressly prohibited to store, dump any radioactive material in the coastal marine area. A nuclear power station needs a significant cooling water supply for the reactors, which means unless a river of sufficient discharge is nearby, it would have to be built on the coast and thus breach the above provision of the Act.

Third, nuclear power stations are very resource intensive. To build one in New Zealand we would need:

  1. A supply of uranium ore – that would have to come from Australia, as we do not have any uranium deposit in New Zealand large enough or accessible to use
  2. We would need a reactor designed to New Zealand building code, a tough ask for a seismically active area and would have to most probably come from the U.S.A. or Japan
  3. The transportation of radioactive material would pose a challenge – whether by truck or by train, there would be security and spill risks that might not meet the mitigatory requirements of the R.M.A.
  4. An enrichment facility here or overseas would be needed

Fourth, the cost of such a venture is going to be high. My estimate would be N.Z.$2 billion, which could easily fund research into developing a tidal power station or a waste to energy plant. All expertise, most construction material, the design and construction of the reactor would have to come in from overseas. Putting together a consortium to manage this would be a politically charged process and would be fraught with as many delays as protestors and activists could get away with.

Fifth, the shutdown phase is time and money consuming. One cannot simply turn off a nuclear reactor and walk away from it in the same way that a hydroelectric power station can be taken off line. The cleaning up of the facility, and the dismantling can take over a decade even if there is no accident.

Finally, New Zealand is simply too seismically active. The entire South Island can be ruled out point blank, as well as all of the North Island as far north as Waikato. Large tracts of the east coast of both islands are at high risk from inundation in a tsunami, particularly if the Hikurangi Trench ruptures, which is expected to happen possibly in my life time and would generate a magnitude 8.5-8.8 earthquake and significant tsunami.

The only place thought to be viable was in Northland, on the Kaipara Harbour coast. Whilst Northland might be the least seismically active part of New Zealand, there are a host of other significant challenges that would go with having a nuclear power station in that province. I expect that Ngapuhi would have huge cross party support resisting something that would potentially threaten their ancestral lands. Land owners would be militant and even if the prospect of a jobs bonanza was there, the environmental and social costs would wipe out any gains.

Just by coincidence – I didn’t realize until I had finished typing the article – this will publish on the 8th anniversary of the Japan earthquake 2011, which caused the Fukushima disaster. Lest we forget.

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