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Dr Muriel Newman

The Sacred Cow of Nuclear Power

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There are a number of “sacred cow” issues in New Zealand that politicians shy away from. These taboos are embedded so deep within our culture that they have become sacrosanct, protected from contrary opinion or even open discussion. As a consequence, whenever these subjects are raised, the resulting hysteria usually closes down the debate almost before it has even started.

What has got me thinking about this is a letter we received last week from our energy company signaling a 5 percent increase in power prices effective from 1 April. They explained that this increase is due to changes in local lines company charges, general cost pressures, an increase in the Electricity Commission levy, and the need to support continued investment in generation plant.

But that’s not all. They ominously add, “Please also note that the Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme takes effect from 1 July 2010. This will result in an increase in electricity prices at that time”. In spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find out what they expected that increase to be, although some in the industry are predicting that prices will rise by at least 10 percent over time.

However, in thinking about the impact on households, businesses and the economy of major increases in electricity charges, I began to wonder why it is that here in New Zealand we have never really had a sensible discussion about whether nuclear power is an option that we should be considering at some stage in the future. After all, there are some 436 reactors operating around the world with a further 47 under construction, 133 planned, and 282 proposed.

The US currently operates the most nuclear reactors with 104, followed by France with 59, Japan with 53, Russia with 31, South Korea with 20, the UK with 19, Canada with 18, Germany and India with 17, Ukraine with 15, China with 11, Sweden with 10, Spain with 8, Belgium with 7, the Czech Republic with 6, Switzerland with 5, Finland, Hungary and Slovakia with 4, Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Mexico, Pakistan, Romania and South Africa with 2, and Armenia, Lithuania, Netherlands and Slovenia with 1.[1]

In 1976, a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Nuclear Power Generation in New Zealand was established, which concluded that while it didn’t see the need for nuclear power generation at that stage, it did suggest that it might be needed at some stage in the future, when demand for electricity outstripped the ability to supply power economically. In line with that possibility, it urged successive governments to re-examine the issue every decade or so in order to keep the nuclear option open. Concerned about the prevalence of anti-nuclear propaganda being promoted by environmentalist groups, the Commission also recommended that great care be taken over how this matter was addressed in schools: “we do see a positive need for more and better balanced education on energy matters and especially for nuclear power to be discussed and taught in its proper place as one aspect of the total energy scene, not as a separated isolated subject. Only if it is seen in such a setting and weighed along with its alternatives, can the educational process be of value”.[2]

A cursory look at today’s education curriculum shows little regard for that advice with the topics in the science curriculum found under headings such as “nuclear hazards”, “nuclear waste”, evaluating an “environmental impact report on nuclear power”, and “critically evaluating the use of nuclear energy for New Zealand’s energy needs”.[3]

There is no doubt that the strong stance against nuclear weapons by successive Governments has had a major influence on public opinion about nuclear matters in this country – from the actions of then Prime Minister Norman Kirk, who in 1973 sent a frigate to Mururoa to protest against French nuclear tests, to the passing of legislation by the Lange Government in 1987 to prohibit nuclear weapons in New Zealand and to ban visits by nuclear-powered ships. That this legislation still stands when a comprehensive report commissioned by the Bolger Government in 1992 – “The Safety of Nuclear-Powered Ships” by Sir Edward Somers – found that “The likelihood of any damaging emission or discharge of radioactive material from nuclear powered vessels, if in New Zealand ports, is so remote that it cannot give rise to any rational apprehension”, is a victory of ideology over common sense. In other words, not only is there is no justification for a continuation of that part of the legislative ban – which has blocked closer trade relations with the US for over 20 years – but the reality is that in terms of emissions of radioactive material, more nuclear radiation was emitted from Auckland Hospital on a single day than was emitted by the US Navy in a whole year![4]

And that is part of the problem – the nuclear fear factor has been grossly over-represented by opponents. The only two major nuclear accidents to have occurred in the 50 year history of civil nuclear energy generation were at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, where no deaths occurred, and Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, where 56 deaths can be attributed, most of them firefighters. In comparison, a study carried out between 1970 and 1992 on energy industry deaths, showed that there were over 10,000 in the oil industry, largely from fire, over 6,000 in the coal industry, largely from methane explosions, over 4,000 as a result of hydro-dam failures and flooding, and over 3,000 from LPG and natural gas explosions.[5]

It is important when dealing with this issue to remind ourselves of some facts. Firstly, New Zealand is not nuclear free and never has been. Naturally occurring nuclear materials are found all around us – in the soil, in rocks, water, and the air. We absorb and store radiation from our surroundings continually.

Secondly, New Zealand has always used radioactive material – radium was used for the early treatment of cancer not long after the turn of the century. In 1933, the country’s first Radiation Laboratory was established in Christchurch by the British Empire Cancer Campaign Society. It was taken over by the department of Health in 1951. The Laboratory was responsible for providing advice on all things nuclear, including pinpointing a potential location for a nuclear reactor (along the Helensville Coast, North of Auckland) and it also coordinated the shipping through New Zealand of nuclear materials to and from the US’s nuclear reactor at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, until it was decommissioned in 1972.

Modern day New Zealand has many uses for radioactive materials in medicine, industry and scientific research. Currently more than 3,000 such shipments arrive every year. Whenever nuclear material is used, waste must be disposed of, and until the 1970s, most was embedded in concrete and dumped at sea just east of Cook Straight. However, since 1976, it has either been stored at the National Radiation Laboratory in Christchurch (in 2005 there were 161 small drums of radioactive waste sealed in concrete in the storeroom) or shipped back to its source for either recycling or disposal.[6]

Countries that use nuclear power invariably find that it is safe, reliable and versatile – it can be sited anywhere that is free from seismic activity and has a suitable supply of water. In fact, this week’s Guest Commentator, nuclear expert Dr Ron Smith, Co-Director of International Relations and Security Studies at the University of Waikato, describes a new generation of ‘floating reactors’, urging us to think seriously again about nuclear power:

“As far as nuclear power for New Zealand is concerned, we just need the courage to think about it and begin to collect reliable information. Once we do this we will find that most of the grounds that are commonly held to count against nuclear power are not as substantial as they have seemed. In fact, experience around the world confirms that civilian nuclear power is safe, highly reliable, economically competitive and environmentally friendly. A vigorous nuclear industry does not detract from Switzerland’s appeal and the fact that France generates around 80% of its power by nuclear means does not prevent it from being the world’s number one tourist destination. It is, thus, not plausible to argue that the development of nuclear power here would reflect unfavourably on our tourist industry”.

In his article Floating Nuclear Reactors: coming soon to a port near you, Dr Smith also points out that adding nuclear power to the national grid would free up some of the water resource, which presently needs to be held in case there is a power crisis, for tourist or agricultural purposes.

At present, New Zealand’s energy needs are expected to rise by around 2 percent a year. It has been suggested that rather than focus on large scale intrusive and inefficient renewable schemes – such as the massive wind farms that are being proposed or the unproven schemes like the proposed tidal project in the Kaipara Harbour – small pebble bed nuclear reactors should be considered. Using this sort of technology an energy park producing 1100 MW (just less than the 1400 MW output of the country’s largest coal and gas-fired power station at Huntley) would occupy an area of no more than three football fields, and could be erected anywhere there is a steady and ready supply of water. It could be used as a base-load station or load-following station, and could be adjusted to the size required by the community it serves.[7] Such a facility would future-proof New Zealand’s energy needs into the foreseeable future.

Whether New Zealand decides that nuclear technology is the right way to go is a moot point. The issue is that in 2010, shouldn’t we be at least having a discussion about these “sacred cow” subjects?

1.Guardian, Nuclear Power Around the World 
2.Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry, Nuclear Power Generation in New Zealand   
3.Ministry of Education, Science in the New Zealand Curriculum 
4.Hansard, Nuclear-Free Legislation – 20th Anniversary 
5.WNA, Safety of Nuclear Reactors 
6.Listener, Material Evidence 
7.Eskom, Pebble Bed Reactor Technology