NZ will need nuclear power

Last updated 05:30 06/12/2013
POWERING: The Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York.

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Should we stay nuclear-free?

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Nuclear power is one of the most-feared technologies around (in the event of mismanagement, and rightly so), but it also has the potential to meet sky-rocketing energy demands.

I don't think nuclear power is currently a viable proposition here in New Zealand, but I do think eventually it will be necessary.

Most of our energy is hydro-electric. At the time of writing this we're generating 4.5GW of power, 3GW of which is hydro. Unfortunately wind, solar and nuclear all have a big issue in common - they have to run all the time so if they're not selling energy, they're wasting it. With plentiful rain, hydro becomes the same, and a huge chunk of our energy is in that bucket.

The risk with these plants is that when demand gets low enough, they can actually end up paying to dump energy through the grid rather than being paid to supply it (buying rights through the must-run dispatch auction). We need more flexible generation and/or better ways to even out demand at present, not more plants in this must-run bucket.

The reason we eventually will end up using nuclear power though is just a matter of energy capacity. Energy demands will only increase over time. However much we might want to save energy, use is still increasing rapidly and can only be expected to continue doing so. Propane and gasoline have energy contents of about 46 MJ/kg. Uranium-235 has an energy content of 83,140,000 MJ/kg.

Uranium itself is abundant and cheap, the costs of the fuel itself being negligible compared to handling and waste disposal. The significance is that handling and processing costs are likely to reduce as technology improves. Whereas fossil fuels are already as cost efficient as they're likely to get, nuclear will continue improving in efficiency and cost for decades to come.

In short, we're not there yet, but we will be. I just hope this area gets the research funding it needs, so that when it does become necessary we have safe, cost-efficient technology to hand.

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