Let’s look at the Nuclear Energy vs. New Zealand debate. Even though New Zealand is fortunate in not having the kind of loony anti-nuclear protestors that cluttered Greenham Common airbase in England in the 70s, there is still a considerable percentage of the population who vociferously hate nuclear energy without much basis in fact or reason.
These opinions might be further inflamed after a few minutes watching the new HBO series “Chernobyl”. If it doesn’t make your blood run cold, and leave you with the urge to write a strongly worded letter to a government representative to ban all nuclear power, then you must be a reactor salesperson.
So, are we right to hate and fear nuclear energy? Should Kiwis even consider using nuclear energy in the future? Or do all signs point to New Zealand saying, “No, Nay, Never,” to nuclear power forever.
Chernobyl and Fukushima
It’s hard for someone who was born after 2000 to realise the impact Chernobyl had on the world. The fallout and radiation contamination spread as far as:
- The Netherlands
- Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland)
- United Kingdom
(Picture courtesy: Science and Technology dept. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)
It was caused by the operators disabling the automatic shutdown mechanism before running some tests. Ironically, the test they were running was to produce a positive safety test result, one that they had so far not been able to do. When they disabled the mechanism, it caused the nuclear reactor to become unstable.
The only good thing that came out of the tragic disaster was that they learned never to do such a stupid thing again.
The events at Fukushima were set in motion by a natural disaster; a 15 metre high tsunami ripped through the shoreline after a major earthquake occurred offshore. It left 3 reactors with defective cooling towers. It’s always going to be a problem when a cooling tower doesn’t work properly because then the reactors can overheat, and you have another Chernobyl on your hands. Everyone in the area was evacuated. As far as nuclear disasters go, the Fukushima Daiichi accident was relatively containable and dignified.
Why Doesn’t New Zealand Use Nuclear Power?
New Zealand is one of the handful of developed nations that don’t use imported or indigenous nuclear electricity. What is the reason for this? As part of the recognised First World countries (countries who were active Allied participants in the Second World War), New Zealand would have had no problem setting up shop as a nuclear powered country.
The main reason is that New Zealand is one of the few countries where the government progressively utilised the hydro-electric potential of the geography as part of its progressive developmental structure. Between 1969 and 1976, however, there were national plans to use nuclear power, but gas, hydro, and geothermal production were adequate for the needs of the population at the time.
New Zealand hasn’t implemented a large-scale power plan project since the Clyde dam was built on the Clutha River in the 90s. When doubts were raised as to whether hydro-power could meet the needs of the growing population, the authorities began exploring the possibilities of wind, gas, and solar power instead.
Then began concerns over carbon dioxide emissions and burning fossil fuels; and in 2017, New Zealand put nuclear energy back on the table. Where it is likely to sit in limbo for the next five hundred years or so..
You see, the simple fact is that Kiwis do not support nuclear power publicly or politically. In 2008. A survey found that only 19 percent of Kiwis put nuclear energy on their list of power options. On the other hand, the two-thirds of manufacturing business owners and industrial tycoons in New Zealand believe that the country should at least look into N-power as an option.
This is a significantly contentious viewpoint, as there is no indication as to whether the two-thirds of the industrialists who support nuclear energy are Kiwis born and bred, or offshore owners. If the people who have industry and manufacturing plants in New Zealand don’t have permanent residences in the land of the long, white cloud, then it could be for purely selfish reasons that they support cheap N-power being installed. Cheap energy means more money in their pockets while they don’t have to run the risk of a reactor exploding in their backyard whenever there’s an earthquake.
Should New Zealand Start Using N-Power?
Greed and anxiety aside, should we look into installing a nuclear power plant in New Zealand?
- Low costs. The cost of building the plant is huge. Once it’s built there are further costs to enrich it and process the fuel. In addition to those beginning costs, the control of the plant and waste disposal are significant. Don’t think that it’s as easy as Mr. Burns from The Simpsons simply releasing the contaminated water into the nearest lake. Getting rid of nuclear waste is an ecologically and financially expensive business. Despite these costs, N-power is still cheaper to produce than oil, coal, and gas.
- Energy stability. When the nuclear plant is up and running, it provides a stable source of power. It can also be synergistically integrated with solar and wind energy supplies.
- Low pollution. The environmental effects of N-power are light compared to other methods. Nuclear waste is potentially harmful to humans, animals, and the environment. It is considered the most short-sighted method of power production.
- Thorium. Cool name for an element and is a greener alternative to uranium.
- N-power is not a renewable energy source, per se. It can be argued that it is potentially sustainable if the secret to nuclear fusion is finally unharnessed.
- N-power has higher energy density than oil, gas, and fossil fuel.
- Natural disasters
- Radioactive waste
In a nutshell, the costs of building a nuclear energy plant are almost prohibitively expensive. So are the running and enrichment costs. In a country that regularly experiences natural disasters similar to those suffered in Fukushima, is it even wise to be having this discussion at all?
Maybe the problem doesn’t lie with the power source. Maybe it lies with the fact that everyone takes having electricity for granted. Not much thought is given to where and how the lights stay on; all that matters is that they do. We should bring the production of electricity and power into the public consciousness with a bang.
Here is the garden of a luxury hotel in the desert in South Africa. They have no coal, water, or gas, so this is what the hotel’s back yard looks like:
This is what every backyard and roof should look like in the future if we want to prioritise the production of clean, renewable energy.