Energy security, climate change boosts nuclear energy interest

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

Electricity security and climate change are driving global interest in nuclear energy.

Germany has announced it will delay the shut down of its last three operating nuclear plants after Russia cut off gas supplies, while the United Kingdom and United States are in nuclear expansion mode.

US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm said nuclear energy provides clean, baseload power at the International Atomic Energy Agency ministerial conference last month.

"The technology itself is safe technology and proven technology.

"We just have to get that story out," she said.

"I can tell you this is unquestionably the most exciting, the most promising, the most energised period of nuclear development I've seen in my time," OECD Nuclear Energy Agency director-general William Magwood said.

But the Ukraine war has also prompted fresh concern about the risks of nuclear energy, with the future of Europe's largest plant in Zaporizhzhia uncertain.

Disconnected from the Ukraine grid by Russian shelling, nuclear fuel at the plant could overheat and cause a meltdown if the power supply running the cooling system is cut.

"We don't want to see the weapon of nuclear power in the war zone but who would have imagined this would have happened, but we should learn some lessons from this," University of Auckland senior physics lecturer David Krofcheck said.

Nuclear power is created from uranium fuel, which contains millions of tiny atoms.

When the atoms are forced to split, heat energy forms in a process called fission.

The heat boils water, creating steam which turns a turbine and generates electricity.

Greenpeace Aotearoa is concerned about the current situation in Ukraine, and is firmly against nuclear energy being created.

Senior campaigner Steve Abel said the technology is complex.

"If you don't have enough water, you have problems with it, if you have a lot of heat as we're getting increasingly globally you've got a very dangerous problem on your hands."

Radioactive waste from creating nuclear energy is also a global challenge, though there have been some developments in long-term storage.

In the next two years, Finland will begin burying waste hundred of metres below ground level in an excavated area inside bedrock.

Abel also points to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and 1986 Chernobyl disaster as reasons nuclear energy should not be pursued.

Physics lecturer David Krofcheck said people should consider what the world has gained from nuclear energy as opposed to the "abnormal events".

Krofcheck said New Zealand doesn't need to consider introducing nuclear energy due to the various renewable energy options that can be expanded as the country transitions to a low carbon economy.

"Small modular reactors, SMR's, which are in development right now - maybe some day New Zealand will find that in its interest to have a solid baseline other than geothermal energy and that would be a possibility," he said.