Letters – Issue 74

Nuclear reactors

We wish to dissent from the lengthy review accorded to Dr Andew McEwan’s book Nuclear New Zealand: Sorting Fact from Fiction (NZB, October 2005). This review contains errors. One is the claim that New Zealand is poor in coal resources. We actually have extensive coal resources, ranging from high-quality smelting coals to lignite. A second mistake is that nuclear reactors do not cause CO2 emissions. In fact, reactors incur significant carbon debt in the nuclear fuel cycle; and depending on the quality of uranium being used, the fuel cycle can be so demanding of fossil-fuel energy that the complete process of construction and operation of the reactor can produce more CO2  than an equivalent gas-fired power station. (See Mark Diesendorff’s Can Nuclear Energy Reduce Co2 Emissions?”, Australian Science, July 2005.)

The review contains an oblique libel. It intimates, vaguely but unmistakably, that nuclear test veterans seek compensation for ill health experienced by them and their children because they are venal and greedy, rather than because there is a case that they have suffered from exposure to radiation. Where is the proof of such venality? The reviewer also makes the disingenuous suggestion, without the slightest citation of evidence, that French nuclear test site personnel might have higher than usual cancer incidence because of exposure to tropical sunlight.

One wonders why Nick Matwiyoff was the person finally asked to review this book. His speciality has been in developing diagnostic techniques that make use of radio-active isotopes – work he carried out for many years at Los Alamos, New Mexico. This gives him no particular knowledge of the epidemiology of cancers in nuclear test sites, and certainly does not qualify him to speculate on New Zealand’s energy needs. He speaks of a scarcity of fossil-fuel resources here, but fails to note that uranium ores are also scarce worldwide. Proven economic uranium resources are sufficient only to power the world’s present nuclear reactors for a few decades. Uranium is another non-renewable resource.

Certainly, he shows no understanding of the reasons why New Zealand wants to be nuclear-free, and knows none of the history of that idea here. Nor does he appear to know how sceptically Dr McEwan’s pronouncements on the safety of French testing in the Pacific were viewed by the New Zealand public. Many of McEwan’s peers and members of that public found him not to be an objective scientist but an apologist for all things nuclear.

We note the very generous space given to the review; but Dr McEwan is not known as a writer of any distinction in science. Whereas science writers with some track-record of producing definitive texts have not had such significant space in New Zealand Books. Emeritus Professor John Morton’s recent classic on the New Zealand and Pacific seashores has, as far as we know, not been reviewed on your pages. Might this be remedied?

Associate Professor Peter Wills
Physics Department, Auckland University

Robert Mann 
Former senior lecturer in Environmental Studies
Auckland University

Denys Trussell
Friends of the Earth (NZ) Ltd



For the record

Although there are many issues which could be debated in Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s review of Frontier of Dreams (NZB, March 2006), I simply wish to correct three errors. Firstly, the book was not “paid for by a television production company” but funded solely by publishers Hachette Livre NZ Ltd. Secondly, the book was not “planned by a committee” but by Bronwyn Dalley and Gavin McLean of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Thirdly, it is incorrect to state that the book is “unlikely to be a bestseller” in March 2006, after it has already been on the New Zealand bestseller’s list for quite some weeks in 2005! Furthermore, rather than speculating at length on who will buy the book, wouldn’t Mr Eldred-Grigg have been better to quiz booksellers on what type of people bought the book in such quantities to put it on the bestsellers list?

Jane Hingston
Managing Editor
Hachette Livre NZ Ltd

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