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Nuclear Energy ~ The 'Anti' Position

Author: Muna Lakhani - Earthlife Africa Cape Town

( Article Type: Opinion )

The nuclear industry has a long and problematic history in South Africa. Whilst the arguments against nuclear energy are strong globally, they are The nuclear industry has been trying to get approval to build new plants for years, including for the failed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor.
However, the arguments against nuclear energy have thus far kept any new developments from happening. Government has already wasted in excess of R10 billion by investing in failed technologies, and there is an urgent need to shift this spending into more productive resources. Despite these failings, the nuclear industry wants a new lease of life in South Africa. At a time when most countries around the world are giving serious re-consideration to their nuclear power generation plans in the wake of disasters like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima in Japan, one would think it would be prudent to take some time to learn from these events. Instead, South Africa is choosing to leap before we look, by pushing ahead with plans to build 6 new nuclear reactors.
These plans are, once again, fundamentally flawed. The main concerns are that nuclear energy is a waste of time and money, that more jobs can be created through developing renewable energy, and that nuclear energy is unsafe and creates waste that will need to be ‘managed’ for hundreds of thousands of years, at unknowable and unquantifiable costs. But in addition, the process through which Eskom is trying to gain approval is fundamentally flawed. This shows that Eskom seems to know that any fair, open and transparent process will not approve of more nuclear energy in South Africa.

What could we expect from more nuclear energy?

Financial Cost: While renewable energies are getting cheaper every year, nuclear plants have been growing more and more expensive to build. In fact nuclear power is impossible without huge government subsidies. Add to that no-one has any idea how much it will cost to decommission a nuclear plant at the end of its life, or how to manage the waste for the next 100,000 to 200,000 years, this makes them hugely expensive. This message is reinforced, when international agencies, such as Standard and Poor, and Moody’s, confirm that it is impossible to cost nuclear build. This is the kind of reason why nuclear power has not been taken up enthusiastically by investors and the private sector.

Climate change: The nuclear industry would have us believe that nuclear power is an effective response to climate change. But given that it has a carbon footprint up to five times larger than renewable energies why should we settle for less than the best? The main issue is that the Life Cycles of energy options are never considered.

Time: Nuclear power plants take a minimum of ten years to build, while we could start to create local industries that meet our energy needs and create local jobs tomorrow! When one considers that nuclear power plants inevitably come in over budget; and that the energy return on energy invested is between 10 to 15 years, even at the energy level, nuclear does not make sense at any level.

Unsafe: The accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima are not one-off events, there have been scores of nuclear accidents that have taken place around the world including in South Africa. In December 2010, 90 Koeberg workers were contaminated by radioactive Cobolt-51, yet the South African government have still not appointed the members of the panel of inquiry supposedly convened to look into the accident. Given that workers and pregnant women are most at risk from radiation, this critical omission is of great concern. Calls for baseline health studies on the impacts of radiation exposure continue to be ignored. Fukushima is panning out as far worse than the impacts of Chernobyl – the fuel involved is roughly double that of Chernobyl, and at least 3 reactors have reached meltdown – the accident is rated 7 on the INES scale (the same as Chernobyl, and the highest on the scale). It is clear that a new rating will have to be developed for Fukushima. Some idea of potential future impacts can be assessed, when one looks at recent research by Slavic scientists (only recently translated into English) that puts the death toll from Chernobyl at 985 000, and counting. Recent reports confirm that infant mortality increased on the Pacific Coast of the USA after Fukushima, a statistically significant 35%. The disaster around Fukushima is just beginning.

Waste: Even though some countries have been producing nuclear power for around 50 years, no-one anywhere in the world has come up with a feasible long term solution for the highly radioactive waste that will be future generation’s legacy for hundreds of thousands of years. There is already over 1000 tons of highly radioactive waste that is being stored at Koeberg with no long term plan in sight for it.
It is humanly impossible to predict in the kinds of geological timescales that are needed.

Jobs: Nuclear power will only be able to provide 0.5 jobs per MW of power generated while some renewable energies can create up to 35.4 jobs per MW generated, while STILL being cheaper to produce. In a country with massive levels of unemployment, it is difficult to understand why government is making deliberate choices against creating jobs for people. Concern for workers in particular, both now and in the future, insists that we move away from a nuclear future. There are many alternatives: If wind and solar and other renewable energies were not practical, then why has China built 25,000 MW (more than half SA total generation capacity) of windpower so far? And why is Europe planning 100 000 MW of offshore wind alone? 40% of Spain’s power comes from wind today. South African wind potential would more than double the total electricity generated today, yet we are planning to spend at least R850 BILLION on nuclear power (which is likely to double in cost!) Only some 750 sq. kms. are needed to generate SA’s current power from existing solar technologies, and some 4500 sq.kms. from wind, bearing in mind that about 98% of the land is still usable for other purposes. Given the latest technologies, solar power now is able to supply power nonstop, putting to bed any arguments that Renewable energy cannot provide ‘base load’.
It would also be prudent not to forget that there are many more technologies that could be used – ocean current (Benguela and Agulhas, non-stop power); Ocean Thermal Electricity Conversion (OTEC – also non-stop, and producing potable water as a waste – a far better solution for de-salination!); biodigesters – providing safe and decent sanitation, while providing a natural gas source; Solar Chimneys – also non-stop power; the list continues… The South African government must place a moratorium on the building of new nuclear power stations, and begin the shift to worker-safe, decent work and local industry creating, sustainable renewable energy technologies. What you can do: write to the media; ask Earthlife Africa activists to come and speak at your meeting or function; tell everyone; say ‘no nuclear’