Let's look at N-power

By Fran O'Sullivan

Nuclear energy is fast-losing its bogeyman status, with 64 per cent of CEOs surveyed saying it should be investigated as a means to help secure New Zealand's long-term energy supply.

The chief executives point out France is 80 per cent powered by nuclear reactors. Common comments were: "More rational debate is needed instead of the emotional clamour of the past decade or so ... 450MW Pebble reactors are safe ... but waste disposal remains a challenge".

Just 30.4 per cent believed it should not be investigated now, with some adding the rider that "the answer should be yes, but why waste time in the face of obvious public opinion".

Others suggested that coal - "if we can deal with air emissions" - would have huge strategic advantages and provide natural hedging for New Zealand against global oil prices.

What is driving this renewed enthusiasm for tackling one of New Zealand's greatest sacred cows is a looming energy crisis.

Nearly 94 per cent of the 90 chief executives and company chairmen taking part in the Herald's Mood of the Boardroom survey said they were concerned about the future of NZ's energy supply. Nearly two-thirds were concerned that their business operations or future investment intentions would be adversely affected by supply issues or escalating prices.

Chief executives from all sectors of energy-related business - generation, reticulation, fuels and major users - ranked the security and cost of supply in the 8-10 band, on a 0-10 scale where 10 equalled most concerned.

There was widespread unease that the Government had duck-shoved the controversy over bringing new electricity pylons from the Waikato to service Auckland by parking the matter until after the election.

"The high voltage investments in transmission and distribution are already 10 years behind Auckland's requirements," said one chairman with first-hand knowledge.

Another pointed to comments by Meridian Energy's Keith Turner "when he said that as a nation we need to start counting options in rather than counting everything out".

"Choice may well be limited to coal or nuclear if as a nation we are determined to dam no more rivers," he said in a reference to the canned Project Aqua.

There was concern that the Government's "laissez faire" approach would result in a future crisis with sub-optimal decisions made in haste.

Chief executives sound a warning that commodity prices - which have under-pinned the recent golden economic weather - are about to rise on the back of higher fuel prices. Petrol prices, which are now rocketing internationally, were of immediate concern. The effect on business confidence was already apparent.

But surprisingly they ranked outstanding problems with the road network - particularly in completing Auckland's - as the number one infrastructural issue facing New Zealand.

Westpac chief executive Ann Sherry, who now chairs the Government Growth and Innovation Advisory Board, said if there is a billion dollars of revenue that business forgoes "because we haven't got the roads sorted out" then we need to make a noise about that. "That's a billion dollars that goes into the future for our kids ... you can't fritter that sort of value away."

Sherry suggests it's time to appoint an Infrastructure Minister - "a senior minister sitting in Cabinet where the money is doled out."

National plans to tackle Auckland's roading problem by setting up a standalone agency, Transport New Zealand, to oversee public transport.

All petrol tax collected from motorists will be spent on the roads instead of going into the consolidated fund as part a move to commit an extra $2.1 billion on roads over six years. It also wants to introduce private sector investment in public infrastructure and simplify the Resource Management Act to reduce barriers to road building.

Obligations on Transit NZ to consult with iwi will go, and National will set a target to get projects moved from the drawing board to construction phase within 12 months.

The Greens believe no city has managed to fix traffic congestion long-term by building more roads. It wants petrol tax revenue to fund public transport.

For Labour's part it can boast a substantial roading investment in its two terms in Government. Transport Minister Pete Hodgson points out that in 1999/2000 major Auckland projects with a total value of $130 million were underway. Last year, by the same criterion, the figure was $1.3 billion. A further multi-million dollar boost was announced last month.

"This represents a quantum leap by Labour in funding the roading and public transport systems which Auckland needs," said Hodgson.

Labour will also investigate the use of biofuels. An Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) commissioned report suggests that at least three per cent of our petrol needs can be competitively met from bioethanol from forestry waste, straw, and waste paper.

But roads are not the only issue facing the only city in New Zealand with pretensions to international status. "This country needs to promote Auckland. If it does well it will attract New Zealanders home," said one entrepreneur.

Auckland Regional chamber of commerce chief executive Michael Barnett said the city needed to take a hard look at what's good for business. "Infrastructure obviously has to be about roading and upfront it's going to be about your bang for your buck which is probably going to be about completion of the roading network."

But Barnett, who has been appointed chair of the new Auckland Regional Economic Development Forum, says the city also needs to look at what the best economic platform is for either people, or businesses, to operate from.

The forum has taken up where the Areds group left off, but Sherry warns it must not descend into yet another round of paralysis by analysis.

"If we don't get on with it the next generation will look back and think what a useless mob were ... it'll all cost twice as much and be much harder to fix."

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