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.

Local Government Act 2002 becoming convoluted


As we approach the end of the third term of this Government, it is important to look back at how the legislation defining local government in New Zealand has changed. Since 2008, a number of changes have been made that significantly alter how local councils operate and the obligations that they are expected to meet. As many of these changes have flown under the radar many New Zealanders are not aware that they even happened.

To understand how the Local Government Act 2002 came to be in its current state, we need to look at prior legislation. One of these prior Acts of Parliament is the Local Government Act 1974, which among other things made provision for the establishment of District Councils, Regional Councils, Unitary Authorities,

Prior to the 2002 Act being passed by Parliament, the 1974 legislation was quite prescriptive in terms of what councils were permitted to do. The newer legislation gave councils the flexibility to choose activities and how they are undertaken, viewed as relating to general competence and applicable in equal terms to both regional councils and territorial authorities. Since then these changes have been amended by the Local Government Amendment Act, 2010. This was prompted by public perceptions that there were councils over reaching their prescribed mandate to spend money on activities and items that are not permitted in the Local Government Act.

One such case was Kaipara District Council which in the end was found to have not breached the Act, after a dispute over the Mangawhai waste water scheme. The Auditor General agreed to pay out $5.4 million in settling the dispute.

Another is Westland District Council, which has been found wanting over repairs to infrastructure damaged by flooding in 2016. W.D.C. have had a long, drawn out and at times messy public dispute with key council managers and the Chief Executive, which have led to some high profile resignations. Although it is not clear if the Act was breached, given that a cake decorating firm with no prior knowledge of waste water was involved in a multi-million dollar contract, I think it is safe to say something went wrong.

In acknowledging the 1974 Local Government Act and the 2002 Local Government Act, it is important to briefly acknowledge the 1989 Local Government Amendment Act. This Act acknowledged that the increasingly complex, convoluted and potentially dysfunctional L.G.A. 1974 needed a significant overhaul. To that end it dismantled or merged 850 separate bodies into 86. Of those 850 there had been 249 municipalities and the other 601 were catchment boards, drainage boards and harbour boards. The current configuration includes 13 regional councils and 73 territorial authorities (City and District Councils).

In 2012 there were changes made that repealed Sections 91 and 92, which pertain to the processes for identifying community outcomes and obligations to report against said community outcomes. This essentially meant councils were no longer obligated to indicate how they were progressing in terms of creating healthy integrated communities, compared with the outcomes identified in council planning papers. In the same year, the powers of the Minister were significantly increased (s257-259) so as to permit the appointment of a Crown Observer, Crown Manager, a Commision or even calling of general elections of a council in place of one thought to be incapable of performing its statutory obligations.

I fear that if too many more Amendment Acts are passed that the Local Government Act 2002 will be too convoluted to remain in existence, thereby becoming obsolete.

What can New Zealand First offer Northland?


On Saturday 28 March 2015, New Zealand First leader, the Right Honourable Winston Peters won his by-election campaign in the Northland electorate. In doing so he ended a lengthy occupancy of the seat by National, whose traditional base includes farmers and those from rural communities. The rejection of the candidate of a party that has traditionally had rural communities as a core part of its constituency was a resounding blow for National, whose ability to govern over the remainder of this Parliamentary term, barely 6 months old has just been severely eroded.

But with the conclusion of the by-election campaign, it is time to look at what New Zealand First can do for Northland. Despite what their party has in mind, most elected candidates seriously contest elections with the intention of doing something useful in their community. Mr Peters is no stranger to Northland as a region and was born in Whangarei, where he was raised. He also spends considerable time in the Northland region when not in Wellington on Parliamentary business. He is familiar with issues facing both Maori and non-Maori in a predominantly rural electorate whose larger towns are places like Dargaville and Kaitaia.

The Northland regions major industries are forestry and agriculture, backed by tourism and horticulture. It also has the only oil refinery in New Zealand, half of whose intake of unrefined product is from Taranaki and the rest comes from the Middle East. The railway line is heavily relied on to get timber products to Auckland. As Northland electorate covers more than 80 of the Northland regions total landmass, except for the Whangarei area, it is largely rural.

New Zealand First campaigned on offering alternatives to National’s road driven agenda. One of the alternative measures it offered to advance Northland was to improve the railway line. Given the relatively low priority National has given to non road forms of transport, the development of the railway line is an alternative that is popular with the electorate. Another promise is to make better use of the Port of Whangarei.  Again, given the prioritization of roading under National, there is potential for the Port to significantly increase its volume, by taking trucks off the road by investing in the merchant marine.

It is not just economic help that New Zealand First could offer Northland though. As a party that is interested in the social well being of New Zealanders and concerned at the growing gap between high and low income earners, as well as the generation of a sub class who cannot work and are at risk of becoming social outcasts, there is much New Zealand First could offer. Because Northland is a primarily rural electorate, the creation of jobs that tie in with the agricultural and forestry sectors are potentially the most useful.

As for Mr Peters himself, Northland decided they wanted him to have a go at improving their lot. Now is his chance to do so. National had occupied the seat for 18 years before Mr Peters won. It will be interesting to see how Mr Peters, who turns 70 this month, and his party play out their hand.