Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nuclear Power for New Zealand?

Well I continue to see idle references to the possibility of nuclear power in New Zealand. And like the Otago Daily Times editorialist I was aware that fairly concrete plans to build nuclear power stations here did once exist.

I was very surprised today though to discover in Smiths Books a bound copy of a submission to the 1977 Royal Comission on Nuclear Power Generation in New Zealand by the group Ecology Action.

I had no idea that there was ever a Royal Commission, presumably this is because I did not read Malcolm Templeton's 'Standing Upright Here' carefully enough (it's a little dry). Nor it turns out did I properly read the ODT editorial which quite clearly discusses the Royal Commission, but anyway.

Despite the name of the organisation, Ecology Action deputed four members of the Physics Department at the University of Otago to write their submission, led by Professor W. J. Sandle. As a result the submission is very well informed, in fact it's a remarkable document. Writing just after the first oil shock and before the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents the world the authors are anticipating seems very like our own. Take this for example:

Four contemporary concerns -- growth, weapons proliferation, energy and the environment -- interact in that problems associated with them reinforce and fee upon each othe. These concerns have, by virtue of their social significance, entered the public arena where they have found a common and legitimate focus in nuclear power.

Ecology Action list as concerns about nuclear power firstly the capital costs. This was second on my list of objections in 2008 for reasons we will come to. After this they cite concerns about the safety of reactors (now largely a solved problem if one is prepared to spend enough) and of the nuclear fuel cycle in general (still a serious concern). They cite weapons proliferation and concerns about nuclear terrorism including the possibility of terrorists building nuclear or radiological bombs. These seem to me to be perhaps more serious concerns internationally now than they were then.

It becomes painfully obvious how little has changed in the nuclear power industry and energy technology generally.

So the following statement is as true today as it was when it was written

There should be no commitment to a nuclear power programme in New Zealand until there has been a clear and convincing demonstration of the effectiveness of a method of high-level waste containment which guarantees safe sequestration for an indefinitely long period. No such method presently exists.

Technically we believe we know how to store high level waste but no country has yet permanently stored any.

Surveying alternative energy sources the authors list wind, biofuels, waves, solar thermal, solar power (photovoltaic solar panels), ocean thermal power and tidal power. With the exception (so far as I know) of ocean thermal these are exactly the alternative energy sources that we now anticipate will be useful in the near future and in the case of wind, biofuels, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic power they supply a not inconsiderable quantity of power in many countries.

This is a good point for those who hope for a technological fix to the questions of global warming. Except in very special circumstances scientists can see these fixes coming a long way off and are usually disappointed in how long they take to become economic. Roughly speaking the technology we have now is likely to be the technology we will be able to use to limit climate change.

One remarkable thing has changed since 1977 though and that is the scale of the anticipated power consumption in this country. In 1977 energy consumption was growing at a rate of 6.5% per year and it was hoped to keep growing at that rate. By my rough calculations from a figure in the submission energy consumption has only doubled since 1977.

At this rate of growth, and supposing half of all energy was supplied by nuclear power generation, then in 2010 we would have needed 13 600MW nuclear power plants. Wow!

As a senior manager in the New Zealand electricity department said in 1975

On present indications of future electricity consumption, it has been shown New Zealand will require about 1200 MW of additional nuclear generating capacity each year from 1990.

These days our power needs grow by only maybe 200 MW each year and our average consumption is maybe 4700 MW.

This is why no one was worried about reserve capacity which was my number one reason not to build a nuclear power plant.

But it really takes your breath away to think of the size of the country and size of the economy people anticipated at that point. It's also an object lesson in the dangers of attempting to forecast too far into the future.


Karen said...

It would be great if New Zealands power is not coming from any nuclear plant. Nice article.

Sean said...

Sorry for posting on a somewhat moribund thread but I only just discovered this blog.

The thing about the projections on energy requirements is fascinating - my reading of those figures is that they got the projection wrong by a roughly factor of 3 over 30 years.

It begs the question of what went wrong here - was it just a half-arsed estimate, has economic/population growth in NZ been much less than expected, or something else?

One possibility is that NZ underwent less manufacturing growth than was expected in the 1970s, e.g. if you buy your steel, aluminium, and other manufactured goods from overseas, there is a hidden increase in your energy consumption because you've outsourced much of the energy intensive industries.

A more interesting possibility is that modern economies are simply much more energy efficient (in terms of MWh per $ of GDP) than they used to be.

Andrew D said...

I believe that New Zealand like other western countries is likely to be achieving more growth in GDP for less growth in energy consumption.

I suspect also though that the New Zealand population has not grown as much as was then anticipated. We have this problem where lots of people leave permanently or semi-permanently :).

Also extrapolations like that are just inherently unreliable over 30 or 40 year timescales.

Anonymous said...

The 1977 Royal Commission recommended nuclear power. The old Electricity Department had considered several sites for a power station in the 1960's and 1970's. I believe that the favoured location was on the Kaipara Harbour north of Kaukapakapa.