Monday, June 2, 2008

Questions to Ask a Nuclear Power Salesperson: First in a Series

The chattering classes in New Zealand are having one of their periodic flirtations with nuclear power. There have been not one but two polls on the subject, one of which suggested that as many as 36% of New Zealanders might be ready to consider it as a possible solution for New Zealand's current power shortages and rapidly increasing carbon footprint. It's getting discussed on the TV and radio. Even artists, opposed to the environmental devastation of wind farms, are wanting to go nuclear! What ever happened to nuclear free New Zealand?

It seems to me that despite the various emotional issues that tend to lead to differences of opinion between the left and the right on this issue, there are pretty hard headed reasons why New Zealand will never build a nuclear power station.

So if you are faced with a nuclear power salesperson why don't you try to find out the answer to some of these questions.

Question 1: Who is going to build and maintain all that reserve capacity?

Power stations, including nuclear power stations, sometimes have to be taken off line because of some issue at the plant. When that happens you need an equal amount of power generation sitting around ready to fire up so that the lights don't go off. Currently the largest power stations in the grid are less than 400MW, so that's roughly the reserve power generating capacity we are currently struggling to maintain. A nuclear power station that we would want to buy might put out as much as 1200MW of power. It seems we would need to MORE THAN TRIPLE our already stretched reserve power capacity to put a nuclear power station on the grid. Oh and you can't build two nuclear stations and leave one idling, unlike coal fired stations and hydropower, nuclear power stations can't be switched off for long periods. This issue is what the statement from the Electricity Commission is trying to get at.

(To give you an idea of the numbers, average demand in New Zealand at the moment is about 4500MW and apparently you can expect a nuclear power station to be on-line about 90% of the time, as opposed to 30% for wind. Oh and I disagree with the Electricity Commission that we would even want to think about a 600MW nuclear plant, but it is true that they have been built that small, and smaller. That's another blog post; and 600MW would mean nearly doubling reserve capacity in any case.)

Question 2: Where are you going to get the US$7 billion to build one?

There are lots of arguments that nuclear power may work out to be economic in the long run, particularly if carbon emissions become sufficiently expensive. (The Electricity Commission say that it may only be twice as expensive as our current power generation, although estimates of the cost vary widely and depend on whether a well established design is being used and how many plants are being built.) However, a really significant fraction of the cost of the power is the cost of the power plant itself. This makes nuclear power hugely capital intensive. Given that this is an enormous problem for the well-established nuclear power industry in the US it's likely to be pretty difficult to solve in New Zealand.

Make sure you ask the nuclear power salesperson about these issues before you ask them about long term waste storage, safety, the lack of nuclear engineering expertise in New Zealand, or the future price and availability of uranium!

Oh, and ask your politicians why they are not investing more in energy conservation measures, wind power, solar power, and my current favourite solar thermal.


Anonymous said...

The joy of reading a post from someone who knows what they're talking about!

Am already looking forward to your next post on why we can/can't build a smaller nuclear power plant.

Anonymous said...

Is it worth exploiting geothermal energy in new zealand? Recalling my little trip to taupo, it seems possible, but unlike you I have no idea what I'm talking about :)


Andrew D said...

Actually yes New Zealand has a very important geothermal energy resource that is currently being better developed. A new geothermal power station came online just the other day.

I should certainly have included geothermal power on my list of alternatives although there are already significant resources being put in that direction.