If we want to keep our lights on, the time has come for New Zealand to reconsider nuclear power, argues Michael Fountaine.
New Zealand has never imported more coal than it does now. Gross greenhouse-gas emissions, rather than falling, have risen by 26 per cent since 1990. It is now going to be harder to meet our net-zero greenhouse-gas-emissions target under the Paris Climate Accord.
The Climate Change Commission (CCC) report shows that in 2019, only 30 per cent of this country's total energy consumption came from renewables, with the remaining 70 per cent from oil, fossil gas and coal. The report also said: "At present, the Government does not have a co-ordinated approach to support the development and deployment of different low-emission technologies, fuels and industries."
What if there was a transformative technology that could provide limitless, low-carbon energy on a sustainable, safe, low-cost basis that would not only help meet our emissions target, but also provide opportunities for green economic growth?
As it happens, there is. It is known as nuclear energy: both existing fission technology and, in the not-so-distant future, fusion.
For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, the recent CCC report omitted any reference to nuclear energy. Yet there has never been a more urgent time than now to debate what future role nuclear power could play in providing clean baseload electricity in New Zealand.
In 1968, our national power plan first identified the likely need for nuclear power for baseload generation. Plans were made and a site at Oyster Point on the Kaipara Harbour, near Auckland, was reserved for the first proposed plant.
Four 250 megawatt electrical (MWe) reactors were envisaged to supply 80% of Auckland's needs by 1990.
But then the Māui gas field was discovered, and it was already known there were coal reserves near Huntly. By 1972, the project was abandoned.
In 1976, the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power Generation in New Zealand was set up. Its 1978 report said there was no immediate need for the country to embark on a nuclear-power programme, but suggested that early in the 21st century, "a significant nuclear programme should be economically possible".
In 1987, the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act was passed. This was largely a symbolic statement of opposition to nuclear war and weapons testing and it prevented ship visits by nuclear-propelled or nuclear-armed vessels (primarily US ones).
The nuclear-free zone established under the Act does not ban land-based nuclear power plants. That is fortunate, because the country is now facing some crucial decisions about its future power supply.
Given the failure in 2012 to build the Mōkihinui hydroelectric dam and power station on the West Coast, it is unlikely any more significant dams will be built.
Power produced from solar panels and wind turbines does not provide baseloads, and they have their own harmful environmental footprint. Even fluctuating lake levels are proving to be a problem.
Distributing power produced in the South Island to the North Island is extremely expensive and inefficient in terms of running costs and capital.
The Huntly Power Station's Rankine generators are gas-capable, but with supplies from Maui running low, coal-fired generation is sometimes the only thing keeping our lights on.
The CCC's final report sets out the first three emission budgets that will help New Zealand meet a target of net zero long-lived greenhouse gases by 2050. Although it is reasonable for the commission to omit technologies that cannot currently directly contribute to reaching medium-term targets, it is short-sighted to omit technologies that could achieve this in the long-term.
Nuclear energy is one such technology, and preparation should start now for its introduction. Roughly 10 per cent of the world's electricity is already generated by about 440 nuclear-powered fission reactors, with 52 under construction in 19 countries. This fission technology is clearly available now if we wanted to embrace it.
Current builds are too large for the New Zealand market, which requires smaller modular units that are now close to being mass-produced. These simpler nuclear-fission power plants can provide low-carbon electricity with fewer of the cost and safety issues that have accompanied the industry to date.
TerraPower (in which Bill Gates has an interest) is building a demonstration high-tech nuclear power station to replace an existing coal-powered plant in Wyoming, using a new type of technology known as a Natrium reactor.
Rolls-Royce is leading an impressive UK consortium. Its concept uses proven technology that allows off-site modular construction and will provide power equivalent to 150 onshore wind turbines. It is due to be ready by 2028.
Danish company Seaborg Technologies is also planning a new type of cheap, portable, flexible and super-safe nuclear reactor. The size of a shipping container, they use compact molten-salt reactors that are to be mass produced, then placed on floating barges.
However, rapid progress is also being made in fusion technology. In June this year, the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Canadian company General Fusion announced plans to build and operate a fusion demonstration plant in Oxfordshire. Construction is expected to begin next year.
Meanwhile, 35 nations are collaborating to build, in Cadarache in southern France, the world's largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy. It's known as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), and building has been under way since 2010, with machinery assembly starting in March 2020. The first plasma will be produced by December 2025.
Demand to grow by 55 per cent
In New Zealand, Transpower has predicted that demand for electricity will grow by about 55 per cent in less than 30 years. The ability to generate power in the North Island close to our biggest cities would offer huge savings in transmission and security of supply.
Although the cost of wind and solar generation has fallen, these methods carry their own environmental drawbacks, especially when the full supply chain, from mining to recycling, is taken into account. For a start, they require raw materials, many of which carry what the Economist refers to as "geological geopolitics". For example, 60 per cent of rare earths come from China and 80 per cent of the processing capacity is based there. With other countries also looking to use power generated from wind and solar sources, the demand and price for these materials will continue to rise sharply.
The longer-term competitiveness of renewables is not guaranteed and they are unable to provide baseload electricity if there is no wind or sun. Battery storage is very expensive and subject to the same input risks as solar- and wind-generated power.
Renewables will not, especially beyond 2030, be able to supply sufficient green electricity to take advantage of the opportunities that will be available. The growth
of electric vehicles, for example, will put enormous pressure on electricity supply, not to mention the implications for how "household" electricity is currently distributed.
Hydrogen is a more likely substitute for heavy vehicles and aeroplanes, and could also be used to produce green steel. Electricity produced from fusion nuclear power could help produce green hydrogen, initiating another virtuous cycle.
Fusion could also be used to help ensure Aucklanders maintain their water supply. New Watercare chief executive Jon Lamonte has indicated desalination and purified recycled water could both be future options. Fusion power could be used to provide the energy required in both the desalination and purification processes.
The anti-nuclear lobby will undoubtedly point out this country's earthquake risk. However, there are many places, such as Auckland, with low seismic risk. Japan has much higher seismic risk than New Zealand, and in May 2019, had 39 operable fission-driven nuclear reactors.
Clearly, Fukushima holds lessons for where not to site such a plant. But with fusion, the risks are greatly reduced. And the nuclear industry in the West has a remarkably good safety record.
There has been no recent survey to test public, Government and business support for nuclear energy. A 2008 survey found that only 19 per cent of New Zealanders included nuclear when asked to choose the best energy sources for the country in the next 10 years. However, a 2005 survey of business leaders showed 94 per cent were concerned about future energy supply, and nearly two-thirds supported investigation of nuclear power.
Given the uncertainties and risks associated with renewables, we would be foolish if we did not seriously consider nuclear energy – especially fusion – to generate our future electricity needs. It may also prove to be the best way to meet our obligations under the Paris Climate Accord.
In a fast-moving, ever-changing, risky world, we need to keep all our options open. I am sure, if he were alive, our own Ernest Rutherford, the "father of nuclear physics", would approve.
Michael Fountaine is a former senior executive with Fletcher Challenge and Carter Holt Harvey and was a consultant to some of NZ's largest companies before retiring. He has a master's in economics and operations research.