New Zealand has long been a world leader in renewable energy. Due in large part to our rich supply of natural resources, including lakes, rivers, and forestry plantations, we are in the fortunate position of being able to derive around 70% of the electricity that our country requires through renewable means.
However, increasing demand for electricity by consumers and industrial users in recent years has outpaced the growth in supply, resulting in substantially higher power bills. Tried and tested renewable sources that once met this growth in demand are no longer feasible: a lack of suitable sites on which to construct hydro dams, for example. As a result, we are now forced to consider whether we should invest more capital into expensive and unproven renewables such as wind and solar power, or whether we should resort to pollutant fuels such as coal and oil—the prices of which are also rising on international markets—to make up for the shortfall.
Some would even argue that the logical next step is nuclear.
First of all, for the purpose of this analysis, let us accept that there is a need for more electricity in New Zealand, and that our existing infrastructure isn’t capable of meeting that need. This leaves us with the question of whether nuclear power is a suitable alternative.
On the one side, we see that nuclear power plants have a relatively small footprint and can be built on far more locations than today’s dams. Modern power plants are also designed such that they automatically power down in the event of an earthquake, so, barring a doubly strong blow like that which hit Fukushima, the risks posed by a natural disaster should be fairly well mitigated.
Furthermore, nuclear power plants do not emit the same large volumes of harmful pollutants as carbon-based alternatives such as gas and coal power plants, with the only real emissions of nuclear fission being steam. In terms of cost, this comparison also favours nuclear, with the cost of uranium fuel accounting for only between 16% and 28% of a nuclear power plant’s operating costs.
Not only does nuclear energy raise the prospect of lower emissions and comparatively lower costs than carbon-based alternatives, but in fact New Zealand—despite the widely held assumption that we are “nuclear-free” by law—already uses nuclear energy and reactions in a range of practical applications, from cancer radiation therapy to household smoke alarms. The idea of bringing nuclear Down Under, therefore, is not without precedent, and we do at least have the basic level of expertise and best practices in place to begin the transition towards nuclear energy.
However, that far from settles the argument. Indeed, for all of nuclear energy’s supposedly clean and safe pretences, the reality of nuclear energy in New Zealand is far less than perfect.
To begin with, there are the oft-cited risks and harms that accompany any nuclear power programme. Despite only emitting steam from its cooling steeples, a nuclear power plant has another far more pernicious byproduct: radioactive waste, which can take tens of thousands of years to decay. This raises two undesirable but unavoidable scenarios: one in which this extremely hazardous waste—each plant producing on average twenty tonnes of it per year—has to be painstakingly poured into barrels and surrounded with cement, transported a thousand feet underground, and then guarded for decades thereafter. Or worse still, that the waste falls into the hands of a criminal syndicate hell-bent on causing public panic and an environmental disaster by crafting a “dirty bomb” or employing the radioactive substance in some other, equally sinister way.
This is even before the risk of some kind of unforeseen human or mechanical error is accounted for. Although modern nuclear power plants may contain many more failsafes than Chernobyl’s ill-fated Reactor Number 4, the risk of catastrophe cannot be eliminated—a very real consideration when you compare the potential damage caused by a nuclear meltdown to, for example, a dam flooding.
Even if we were to dismiss these risks, the practicality of nuclear power in New Zealand remains questionable. Firstly, any nuclear power programme here would obviously be on a small scale considering the cost required to construct a single reactor. Therefore, in the event that a plant were forced to shut down, it would result in a far larger drop in supply than if a power plant were to shut under our current configuration, whereby power generation is distributed across many dams, wind farms, and other sources. Such a drop in supply could result in sudden power blackouts and immediate hikes in electricity costs as relative demand soars. This is a risk not only to household electricity prices, but to the productivity of New Zealand’s industrial sector and, by extension, our economy as a whole.
If New Zealand does in fact have a power crisis, it is only reasonable that we consider a wide range of options before settling upon one or more solutions. Hopefully I have demonstrated to you that, whether considered from the point of view of an environmentalist or economist, nuclear power simply doesn’t stand up to any reasoned tests of feasibility, at least where the circumstances of New Zealand are concerned. Not only does nuclear energy carry an inherent risk, but, when you consider the relative harmlessness and efficiency of renewable forms of energy, nuclear power simply doesn’t stack up.
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