New Zealands nuclaer free stand Vs Nuke Power info
Nuclear option rears its head
27 February 2005
BY GARRY SHEERAN
Taboo Enery source nuclear power will be on the table at a high-powered conference in Auckland this week when industry big-wigs weigh the country's options facing into an energy crisis.
Australia-based organisers of the annual National Power NZ conference said nuclear power was included in the agenda after requests from New Zealand participants at previous conferences for a more international focus.
"We realise nuclear power is a hot potato, but if all energy options are to be considered, then it should be too," said conference organiser James Matthews from Sydney.
The inclusion of the nuclear option is likely to prove an embarrassment to politicians attending the conference.
Energy Minister Trevor Mallard said the government was committed to keeping New Zealand nuclear-free. "This includes a policy of no nuclear power stations," he said.
The country's 20-year-old anti-nuclear legislation was still on the books, and made no distinction between nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
National Party leader Don Brash said New Zealand had a lot of potential energy sources in water, wind, and especially coal.
"So we don't see any need to talk about nuclear for the foreseeable future," he said.
However, some top energy industry leaders are not so opposed.
Stephen Barrett, chief executive of Contact Energy, the country's largest energy generator and retailer, said he was not surprised to see nuclear power being debated in New Zealand.
"As I make presentations to investment analysts and retail investors, the question of nuclear power as an option for New Zealand has been raised many times," he said.
He also said interest had been renewed, with many other countries revisiting the nuclear option as economies around the world sought energy sources that emitted low amounts of greenhouse gases and ensured security of supply.
Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy supply option that is carbon emission-free. In the days before the nuclear-armed warship ban in the mid-'80s, nuclear power was being actively touted for New Zealand.
The former NZ Electricity Department saw it as a real option, and one plan called for a massive 1000MW station on a site near Northland's Kaipara Harbour. A 1976 Royal Commission of Inquiry concluded the chances of New Zealand needing nuclear power for electricity generation "early in the new century are real indeed".
"Nuclear power should be retained as an option for the future, with the possible commissioning date of 2005-2007 in mind," reported the commission.
The need for an earlier introduction was mitigated by the discovery at that time of the Maui gas field, now near the end of its life. Only a few years ago, nuclear power was proving a global dinosaur technology.
After the disasters of Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island in the '80s, no new nuclear reactor had been ordered in the US for 25 years.
And while China, India and Japan were building new ones, the number of new reactors being built barely matched those being retired.
But an apparent reprieve has been fired by growing anxiety about global warming.
The presentation on nuclear power as an energy source for New Zealand will be made at the Hilton Hotel-based conference by the World Nuclear Association, based in Britain.
On its website, the association quotes respected UK environmentalist James Lovelock as a controversial advocate of nuclear power as a band-aid while alternative energy sources are found. Lovelock, who originated the Gaia hypothesis of the earth's biosphere as a self-regulating entity, says the dangers of nuclear are trivial compared with the dangers of allowing global warming to happen.
Barrett said: "There are several issues that New Zealand would have to address and overcome, first and foremost the strong public sentiment against things nuclear."
He also said nuclear power stations being built overseas were usually above 600MW in size, compared with the largest units in New Zealand of around 350MW.
"It would be extremely difficult to integrate a station of that size into the New Zealand system," said Barrett.
"But around the world energy is getting more expensive, and people everywhere are less interested in damming waterways and putting wind turbines on ridges."
He did not see nuclear power as part of a short-term answer to New Zealand's looming energy gap in the wake of the closedown on the giant Maui gas field.
"But we need to be informed and keep an open mind on all opportunities," he said.
Genesis Power boss Murray Jackson said he believed a 500MW base-load nuclear plant could integrate on the grid by 2010.
Genesis was building a 400MW high-efficiency gas turbine, and there were other similar-sized plants planned.
"My concern would be that the cost of regulation and controls necessary for managing a nuclear power station would outweigh the cost of running the rest of the power industry," he said.
Jackson didn't see nuclear power stations fitting into either the New Zealand of Australian economies.
"They are expensive, and the overheads are high. The Aussies are right: we need to scrub coal cleaner and both countries have huge deposits of coal."
Business Roundtable chief executive Roger Kerr said power prices may have to rise significantly before nuclear power became a commercial option for New Zealand.
"But why put your head in the sand and pretend it is not an option not to be considered?" he said.
No one could be sure just how high electricity prices would rise as the world headed into a potential energy crisis.
Amid farmer anger over Transpower's plans to string 400kV lines on pylons up the central North Island to bring electricity to Auckland, Federated Farmers vice-president Charlie Pedersen last week called for a reconsideration on nuclear power.
Energy consultant Tim Denne said the need for the lines would be reduced if Mighty River Power was successful in winning consents for plans to build a coal-fired power station at the Marsden B site near Whangarei.
But people protesting burning coal in Whangarei would be even more opposed to building nuclear power stations whose radioactive waste was an intractable and unsolved problem.
At last year's power conference, Meridian announced it was dropping its Aqua project to dam the lower Waitaki to provide more hydro-sourced electricity.
Part of the reason was the difficult consent process.
This year Meridian is ringing alarm bells over plans to reallocate water rights in the Upper Waitaki, which may lessen its ability to produce electricity from existing power stations.
Tim Bedde, of economic and energy consultancy Civec, said: "Big new hydro stations are now off, we are losing access to existing hydro capacity, we don't like coal, we are running out of gas."
"We certainly have some big issues out there."
He said there were still plenty of opportunities to produce electricity from renewables like wind, and even water, but big questions remained about whether that would be enough.
"That is why the nuclear option is back on the table."