October 4, 2010
by Judith Taylor
Amid the rather futile discussion about South Africa’s nuclear power generation policy and programme the most important aspect of all seems lately to have dropped off the list of factors to be considered. I refer to the radioactive longevity of nuclear fuel residue. For its radioactivity to decay to just half its initial intensity takes about 25 times longer than the entire recorded history of man.
It is no solution to encase the stuff in concrete then drop it down a mine shaft or push it inside a mountain tunnel. A quarter of a million years is ample time for unpredictable chemical and geological processes to re-expose this deadly material. Nuclear power generation on a global scale would produce enough radioactive leftovers to occupy a great deal of no-go land and require costly guarding virtually for ever, a period that would see the end of our civilisation and the rise and fall of several more.
Theoretically, nuclear waste could be recklessly shot off into space or by some yet-to-be-invented marvel of nuclear physics changed into something less lethal. In the meantime it would be more realistic to persevere with developing wind and solar power networks to succeed Eskom’s present coal-fired generation programme. However, in the interests of time and expense the government should facilitate this development work being carried out by private industry.
Meanwhile Eskom should incentivise the government to pursue diplomatically the agreement to bring hydropower from the Congo River, a sensible idea but discarded because of political and military instability on the route. This threat could be overcome if the need is pressing enough.
True costs of nuclear power are ignored
The problem with nuclear power is the total lack of transparency. People such as Dr Kemm can never give cradle to grave costs of the projects. Let’s look at what is involved if nuclear power goes ahead:
- Nuclear power is not only a substantial threat to our water resources, but also to the biodiversity of the Cape.
- At Thyspunt, 5 000 jobs and a R500 million industry will be replaced with a polluting reactor and 750 jobs.
- Uranium mining, the birthplace of the fuel, is highly polluting of miners themselves, water and surrounding land.
- Nuclear waste is also highly polluting. Nuclear power’s real carbon footprint has never been acknowledged nor has the full cost of nuclear been computed.
The citizens of Niger have recently instituted action in the US against Areva, which is mining for uranium in that country, for damage undergone by the state as well as the inhabitants of the area where Areva works. This suit is claiming several million euros in compensation.
Currently, there is not one proven, operating nuclear plant of the “new generation”. In addition, the safety issues have been omitted from the environmental impact assessments.
However, do we wish to see our water supplies, our land and our people so polluted by uranium, caesium, lead and so on that there is no quality of life and we all die a slow and painful death? Is it a logical path to follow, given the experiences of native Indians in the US who mined uranium and have died of radiation sickness?
Renewables can come on line right now and provide more than 10 times the number of jobs that nuclear or coal can. South Africa’s ingenuity in pioneering new technology can grasp the renewables revolution and bring us true wealth and health.
The cost of Chernobyl was 985 000 lives. In the UK the Sellafield plant’s decommissioning has failed, leaving a radioactive waste land for generations to come. Koeberg’s decommissioning could do the same.
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