By SIMON COLLINS science reporter
The head of the Government-appointed Electricity Commission, Roy Hemmingway, says New Zealand is too small for nuclear power.
Mr Hemmingway, an American who chaired Oregon's Public Utility Commission before coming to New Zealand last year, told a Royal Society forum in Auckland that nuclear power plants were okay for the US but "way too big" for New Zealand.
"A nuclear power plant with one shaft is generating 1200 megawatts, and that is fine in a system that is very large where you have adequate power available for when that plant goes down," he said.
But New Zealand's total electricity generating capacity was only 8700MW, so any problems with a nuclear plant would remove a seventh of the country's capacity.
"In a system such as New Zealand's, you don't want any plant that is as big as 1200MW," he said.
He was commenting as Energy Minister Pete Hodgson yesterday opened a new 155MW oil-fired power station at Whirinaki, near Napier, to provide backup generating capacity in a dry year.
Last week British environmentalist James Lovelock urged the world to build nuclear power stations rather than burn more oil, coal or natural gas.
Mr Hemmingway said New Zealand did not have that option, and had to look towards building more power plants using oil, coal and gas despite the Kyoto Protocol under which the country has promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2012.
"They certainly present a problem for Kyoto, which nuclear does not," he said.
"But that still doesn't solve the problem of nuclear being simply too big for New Zealand."
He said new technology enabling smaller nuclear plants had not been tested anywhere in the world.
Nuclear power made sense for larger countries despite the problem of disposing of radioactive waste.
"You can take 30 years of waste from a nuclear power plant and keep it safely in a space smaller than the average house, whereas the waste from a coal- or gas-fired plant goes into the atmosphere and can't be recaptured."
Auckland energy consultant Bryan Leyland said nuclear power stations with a generating capacity as low as 600MW could be built.
He said he opposed the Kyoto Protocol because of scientific doubts over whether the Earth is warming, and whether any changes in climate are caused by human activities. But the logic of Kyoto led to nuclear power.
Steve Goldthorpe of the Sustainable Energy Forum said fossil fuels and nuclear power were unacceptable - one because of global warming, and the other because of wastes that would persist for thousands of years.
"This is contrary to the basic principle of sustainability of meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future generations," he said.
"Nuclear power is only a temporary expedient.
"There is a certain amount of uranium, enough for a few decades, but if one is asking what are we going to be using 100 years from now, then nuclear is a here-today, gone-tomorrow resource.
"So we need to focus on the really renewable resources and then cut our consumption to match the availability of resources."
British environmentalist James Lovelock has urged the world to build nuclear power stations rather than burn more oil, coal or natural gas
Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide and add to the "greenhouse effect" which could lead to potentially catastrophic changes in the climate.
By SIMON COLLINS science reporter