SciBlogs is running guest posts from some of the Eureka! Sir Paul Callaghan Awards 2014 finalists. In this guest post, University of Auckland student Rachael Wiltshire kicks off a conversation about the future of New Zealand energy.
Three years ago, my History class was studying the Vietnam War when a question arose: why would anyone want to implement Communism? Is it not inherently evil?
“What makes you think that?” my teacher asked. “The Cold War,” came the consensus opinion. But, as my teacher pointed out, we were all born after the Cold War ended. We had not grown up fearing Eisenhower’s falling dominoes. We simply accepted that Communism was bad, because that was the received wisdom we had absorbed over the years.
You know another thing my generation has not grown up fearing? Nuclear annihilation. And yet, in New Zealand, nuclear power still remains a taboo subject. We are proud of our anti-nuclear history, so much so that an acceptance of the fallacy of nuclear power has become ingrained in our national psyche. We accept, unquestioningly, that nuclear power is bad.
Two years ago, I was awaiting the start of a lecture at the London International Youth Science Forum. That day’s topic was an intriguing one; nuclear fusion, and the possibility of harnessing it for power generation in the future. As the lecture began, something struck me: I was surrounded by people who had not necessarily been raised to believe that nuclear power should be avoided at all costs. As I listened to the lecture, I was able for the first time to think of nuclear power, not as something which would ultimately lead to death and destruction, but as a feasible option for powering our future.
We are all aware that our current reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable. The carbon emissions created by the combustion of these fuels contribute to the enhancement of the greenhouse effect, and our coal, oil and gas supplies are running out. We need to move towards an economy which is based on other fuel sources.
When thinking about other fuel sources, we tend to jump straight to renewable energy. In New Zealand we are lucky in that our economy is already largely based on renewable energy sources; in 2012, just 28% of our electricity was supplied by the burning of fossil fuels. However, renewable energy sources have a couple of disadvantages. They’re fickle- the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow (even in Wellington!)- and utilising them does involve significant environmental changes- think of the changes to a river system caused by the building of a dam, or of the chemical fertilisers that go into producing crops for biofuel production. In fact, Max Planck Institute physicist Axel Kleidon has argued that using some renewable energy sources, such as wind power, could in fact cause climate change as significant as a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels, by changing the way in which the wind circulates.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be using renewable fuels. However, like a good diet plan, ‘everything in moderation’ is the most sustainable option for our future. If we are able to use a variety of different resources to produce energy, we are less likely to rapidly deplete those resources and more able to adapt to any changes in the environment which affect the availability of those resources. As a nation, we should consider whether one of those resources could be the energy stored in atomic nuclei.
Today, when we talk about nuclear power we are talking about nuclear fission- the process by which a radioactive nucleus decays to another, lighter nucleus with the release of energy. There is another nuclear process; fusion. This is the process which powers stars, and involves two lighter nuclei fusing to form a heavier nucleus, a process which also releases energy. This latter process has only recently become feasible on earth, and is being explored by the ITER project, which aims to build an experimental fusion reactor in Provence. Fusion is a safe and sustainable technology. It uses the heavy isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, as its fuel sources; deuterium is abundant in the oceans and tritium can be produced from lithium, which is also abundant. The reaction itself produces no radioactive waste and, according to the ITER website, there is no risk of runaway reaction.
We live in a world of rapidly developing technology- according to Edward O. Wilson, our scientific knowledge doubles every 15-20 years. To benefit fully from the technologies which are available to us we need to be willing to re-evaluate their place in our society. We should not stand aside and let our decisions about certain technologies be based on ingrained fears and outdated science- that is how dogmas are born.
So, nuclear power, New Zealand? Maybe a discussion of the science would lead to a reaffirmation of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear position. Either way, the important thing is having the conversation. To quote Seven Sharp, #WeShouldProbablyTalkAboutThis.
My name is Rachael Wiltshire and whilst I’m a Wellingtonian at heart, I’m currently in my second year at the University of Auckland. I’m studying for a BA/BSc, majoring in Earth Sciences, Physiology, History, French and German, because I find everything incredibly interesting and couldn’t whittle my subject choices down any further. My future plans involve finding some way to combine these diverse interests into a career. My particular scientific interests are climate science and neuroscience; however, I am equally passionate about science communication and education.