October 19, 2009

No Nukes Please, We're Kiwis


OPINION: For a while there, enthusiasm for building nuclear power stations waned. The Chernobyl disaster, the Three Mile Island scare, problems with radioactive waste and cost overruns turned the populace against nuclear power. A few were shut down or put into mothballs.

But have nuclear reactors got any future? Aren't they being shut down everywhere? Well, no. With global warming, nuclear reactors are back in spades.

About 440 nuclear power plants are now working round the world. They churn out about 17 per cent of the world's electricity.

The United States leads the way with 93 nuclear power plants, then France with 59, Japan with 52, Britain with 15 and Spain with 10. Even Cuba, Chile, Argentina, Pakistan, Mexico and the Philippines have nuclear power plants.

Eighty per cent of France's electricity is nuclear-generated, 78 per cent of Lithuania's, 53 per cent of Slovakia's and 43 per cent of Hungary's.

Fifty more nuclear power plants are being built at present and another 300 are in the pipeline.

Most of the growth is in Asia and Eastern Europe. Twenty-two new reactors are being built in China and they plan to complete one a year for the next 20 years.

They are also being built in Brazil, Argentina, Romania and Slovakia. Japan and South Korea have plans or have placed orders for 15 and 12 new reactors. Poland, Estonia and Latvia are setting up a joint nuclear electricity project with Lithuania.

Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Thailand have new reactors on the drawing board and France plans to replace 40 of its older nuclear power stations.

Under heavy pressure from environmentalists, a few German, Canadian and US reactors were shut down or mothballed recently but, with the renaissance in nuclear power, their governments have decided to refurbish and restart many of these plants.

Sweden has abandoned plans to decommission its nuclear plants and is now investing heavily in upgrading them. In the US, there have been 17 applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for joint construction and operating licences for about 25 new nuclear power reactors.

Most of today's nuclear power comes from Generation 2 reactors but scientists and engineers are developing Generation 3 and Generation 4 reactors. These promise huge improvements on the older ones. In the event of an earthquake, a terrorist attack or staff falling asleep, they will quietly switch themselves off and cool down. No more meltdowns.

The new plants will get 99 per cent of the energy from uranium instead of the 1 per cent they get from current machines, and Generation 4 reactors will make no nuclear waste. They emit hydrogen as a waste product.

Asian countries once bought their nuclear plants from the West but these days Chinese and Japanese engineers design, build and export their own nuclear reactors. The Chinese are mass-producing their "pebble" reactors from modular parts.

In the unlikely event of New Zealand ever installing a nuclear power plant, we'd probably buy one from China. It would be cheaper.

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