By Dr Rebecca Priestley, Science in Society group, Victoria University of Wellington
I spent the morning of March 12, 2011 glued to the television set, watching the incredible footage of the tsunami wave breaching sea walls alternating with scenes from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster impacted on attitudes to nuclear power around the world – but in different ways in different countries. The disaster led to a freeze on Japan’s nuclear industry and major setbacks to that country’s planned future of nuclear energy development. Germany, Switzerland and Belgium made decisions to phase out nuclear power. Taiwan – which, like Japan, is in a region of high seismic hazard – shut down construction of its fourth nuclear power plant. In contrast, nearby Korea, China and India continued to expand their nuclear fleets. While France planned to reduce its nuclear commitments by 25%, and decommissioned some of its older reactors, other countries, including the US, UK, Finland, and the countries of the former Soviet Union, showed a minimal Fukushima effect.
New Zealand, as a non-nuclear nation, is different. Green Party Politician Keith Locke probably expressed the immediate sentiment of many New Zealanders with his statement, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, that he was “so glad our country is nuclear-free.” But the Fukushima disaster did little, if anything, to change pre-existing narratives about nuclear power in New Zealand. As recounted in my chapter about New Zealand in The Fukushima Effect, there is still a significant minority – around 30% – who think nuclear power would be a good idea for New Zealand, and preferable to alternatives such as wind farms.
Cold on nuclear
While majority public opinion, political opinion and economic realities are all against the introduction of nuclear power to New Zealand anytime in the foreseeable future, it’s worth remembering that nuclear power was once expected to be part of New Zealand’s future. Pro-nuclear rhetoric emerged in the 1950s and in the 1960s and 1970s there were plans for a nuclear power plant on the Kaipara Harbour, to supply energy to meet Auckland’s growing demand for power. But the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power Generation in New Zealand reported in 1978 that – because of the recent Maui gas development and new coal reserves discovered at Huntly – a nuclear power station was not needed.
The World Nuclear Association now says that “Nuclear power remains an option for New Zealand, using relatively small units of 250–300 MWe each, in power stations located on the coast near the main load centres. … New Zealand will find it increasingly difficult to avoid considering nuclear power. Nuclear is a sustainable option, able to enhance the country’s desired image. With minimal aesthetic impact, it would provide the power for Auckland’s continued growth, including energy-intensive industry.”
Informed debate needed
When the Fukushima disaster happened five years ago, New Zealand media – me included – found it hard to find scientists who were informed and available to be interviewed. If at some time in the future, in response to a massively growing population or changing economics of nuclear power, a New Zealand government proposes to introduce nuclear power to New Zealand we will need scientists who are permitted to speak out on the issue. Some might offer evidence why nuclear power is a safe, economical and rational option for New Zealand. Others might provide evidence to show that nuclear power is not suitable for New Zealand—a tectonically active country with abundant sources of renewable energy and extensive scope for improving efficiency of energy transmission and use.
Public scientists today are increasingly restricted in what they can say to the media. To enable public participation in any future decision-making about nuclear power we will need public scientists willing to answer questions from the media and the public and take part in an informed dialogue on the topic. Nuclear power attracts controversy everywhere, but is likely to do so more in “nuclear-free” New Zealand than elsewhere.
If and when New Zealand does have a debate on nuclear power, the “expert” opinions cannot be left to politicians, environmentalists, and business people. At a time when researcher guidelines for public engagement are being developed by the Royal Society of New Zealand, it’s worth noting that, if the public is to make an informed choice on nuclear issues – or on any other controversial issues – scientists must be allowed to engage with the public and contribute to the discussion and debate.
Rebecca Priestley is author of Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age and co-editor, with Richard Hindmarsh, of The Fukushima Effect: a new geopolitical terrain. She writers a regular science column, and occasional feature article, for the New Zealand Listener.