Walking the URANIUM ROAD,The pros and cons of SA’s nuclear future


As the world marked the first anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster this March,South Africa remained poised to open bids for its nuclear energy programme – a contract estimated to be worth a mammoth R500 billion to R1 trillion.

The contract to build six new nuclear reactors by 2030 will be the largest tender issued in SA’s history, dwarfing the controversial arms deal which tallied up to a mere R70 billion in comparison. SA’s nuclear programme will be a massive investment on an international scale, too, making up an estimated 20% of the world’s current nuclear spend over the next 20 years.

With Eskom warning that rolling blackouts may resume across the country this winter if South Africans don’t cut down on power usage, and a minimum 16% electricity tariff hike kicking in as this edition hit the streets, we look at whether going nuclear is our answer to affordable, reliable and greener energy.

The Big Issue always aims to bring you both sides of the story, fair and square. So we challenged two opposing sides to debate the pros and cons of South Africa’s nuclear energy plan outlined in government’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for Electricity: 2010- 2030. The IRP is a road map for the construction of all new power plants for South Africa – nuclear, coal and renewable.

Dawid Serfontein, a senior lecturer at the School of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at North-West University, firmly believes following the uranium-paved road will lead South Africa out of the dark. His opponent Peter Becker, head of anti-nuclear activist group Koeberg Alert, argues that renewable energy is the greenest and safest answer to our energy woes. Who’s right? You be the judge

Why does SA need a Rl trillion nuclear programme?

Electricity is essential to our economy. Estimates indicate that the massive cost of building the necessary power plants are dwarfed by the damage to the economy when a shortage of power leads to blackouts, as we experienced in 2008/9, and as we might soon face again. So the most expensive electricity is the electricity that you don’t have during a blackout.

[Pro nuclear - Dawid Serfontem]

Despite the costs, government decided to commit to a full nuclear fleet of 9.6 gigawatts (GW) to protect South Africa against unpredictable price spikes in fossil fuels, and to ensure the country has enough reliable capacity to generate the power needed to meet demand in peak hours.

It is also important to note that government’s estimate for the nuclear power plants in the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for Electricity is closer .to RO.6 trillion and that a nuclear power plant is a long-term investment. Yes, construction costs are typically higher than for other power plant options, but the fuel, operations and maintenance costs for nuclear are low. Plus nuclear plants last for 60 years, compared to 30 years for Concentrated Solar Power with thermal storage, 25 years for Photo Voltaic (PV) solar panels and 20 years for wind turbines. Therefore a nuclear plant normally pays for itself in the first 20 years, followed by 40 years of very cheap electricity.

Nuclear power is also reliable, compared to intermittent sources such as wind and solar, which can potentially lead to blackouts during periods when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine. It is also cleaner than most other options: nuclear reactors emit almost no carbon dioxide (so South Africa’s carbon footprint would be reduced) and emit practically no cancer-causing chemicals in smoke, like coal-powered plants do.

[Anti-nuclear - Peter Becker]

It doesn’t. South Africa has excellent potential for renewable energy, such as wind and solar, using available technology. Eskom currently generates only 0.02% of its electricity from renewable sources, whereas other countries are already generating 20% renewable electricity. Committing R1 trillion to a nuclear programme will further delay the long overdue commitment needed to start improving energy efficiency and installing renewable energy plants.The cost of the six nuclear reactors is quoted by Eskom at about R500 billion. But this is the “overnight cost” which excludes financing costs (the interest) and the cost of supporting infrastructure (such as upgrading or building roads), personnel and equipment for emergency services, training and decommissioning of the power plants. A more realistic estimate is in the region of R1 000 billion, or R1 trillion.The cost of radioactive waste disposal needs to be added on top of that. This is difficult to estimate but an example of a national disposal site is Yucca Mountain in the United States, which carries an expected price tag of over R5OO billion.When the full cost of nuclear power is calculated and compared against the projected cost of renewable energy, which is falling every year, it is clear that building nuclear plants will be more expensive than renewable plants in the long term.

So why go nuclear instead of renewable energy?

[DS] Nuclear and coal are our only stable base-load options. So nuclear competes directly with coal, and government has chosen nuclear as it complements renewable power by supplying clean, stable power. Therefore it is important to note that the IRP does not suggest we should go nuclear instead of renewable, but rather that we should reduce our dependence on dirty coal by building 17.8GW of renewable as well as 9.6GW of nuclear electricity generation capacity. It is clear that the IRP is green and pro-renewable energy.

In spite of several apparent weaknesses in the IRP – such as not including interest on the capital during construction or the decommissioning and waste management cost for nuclear plants and not fully accounting for the variability of wind power – it lays a solid foundation for our energy future. It also leaves room to learn from our experiences and thus to change course as we go.

[PB] This is the million-dollar (or, in this case, the trillion-rand) question. Nuclear power is expensive, dangerous, has unresolved issues around the waste and, in South Africa, is quite unnecessary. Renewable energy, on the other hand, requires no fuel, and hence no mining, fuel processing and transport. Not to mention no radioactive waste to dispose of. With renewable energy there is zero danger of a radiation leak or a nuclear disaster.
Renewable energy is also quick to build. A large wind farm is a series of turbines, each of which is built in months. So if a wind farm is constructed over several years, as improved technology becomes available the wind turbines which are added can take advantage of the new technology and the falling prices. In contrast, when a nuclear plant is ordered, the technology is “locked in” for the 10 to 15 years a single plant takes to build. Once it is first switched on for its 40 to 60-year operating life, the design will already be 15 to 20 years out of date.

Why is SA building six new reactors when other advanced nuclear power countries, such as Germany, are moving away from nuclear?

[DS] Because South Africa needs cheap green power and nuclear is the most reliable and affordable green option.

Although initial costs of building the plants are high, this is offset by their long lifespan and their reliability (nuclear plants produce at full power for 92% of the year, compared with only 20% for PV solar and 30% for wind). When these numbers were factored in, the IRP calculations showed that nuclear has the cheapest levelised cost of electricity of all the clean energy options at R0.53 per kilowatt, compared to R0.55 for Concentrated Solar Power, R0.56 for wind and R0.63 for PV solar.

The intermittent nature of wind and sunshine causes fluctuations in power output which tend to destabilise the electricity grid. When only a small percentage of these intermittent energy sources are added to the grid, the destabilisation is hardly noticeable. But if a large percentage is used, it requires costly backup systems, such as pumped storage and gas turbines, to keep the grid stable. These costs are not included in the IRP’s per kilowatt calculations. Relying on renewable energy as the source of power for South Africa would therefore sharply increase the cost of going green, which would be unwise for poverty riddled South Africa.

Germany, on the other hand, is one of the richest countries in the world. They can afford to go for the expensive green option of a very high percentage of renewables in their energy mix, even though authorities have acknowledged it is presently uneconomical.

Lastly, Germany is in the minority. Almost all other countries which before Fukushima had definite plans to build nuclear power plants, still intend to do so, including France, Russia, Britain, America, China, India and South Korea.
So why are some still pushing nuclear power for South Africa? Obviously there is a strong and very well-funded industry lobby, drooling over the potential profits from a R1 trillion deal, not missing an opportunity to promote nuclear power while glossing over the costs and risks. Many have been fooled by the “information” put out by this lobby and have been led to believe the overnight cost of nuclear is the true cost, which it isn’t.[PB] After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany led the way by appointing the Ethics Commission on Safe Energy Supply. The commission concluded that the disaster at Fukushima “demonstrates the limitations of human disaster-preparedness and emergency measures” even in a highly organised, high-tech country like Japan. It went on to recommend that renewable energy sources be built rapidly, and that all nuclear power stations should be shut down within a decade. The cost of this has been calculated as a temporary 10 to 20% increase in electricity prices, which seems insignificant compared to Eskom’s repeated annual price hikes of 16 to 25%.

Some engineers and scientists have also invested many years of their lives in nuclear technology and are understandably reluctant to see the nuclear industry – and their planned careers – collapse.

How will the South African public benefit from new nuclear plants – will jobs be created?

[DS] The most important benefit of any power plant is reliable electrical power, not jobs. But reliable and affordable electricity, which is exactly what nuclear plants are good at providing, will massively stimulate any economy, which in turn will produce lots of jobs.

The construction of a new nuclear plant itself will also create thousands of jobs. However, recent studies show that other power plant types create similar numbers of jobs, while PV solar plants create even more.

[PB] The South African public use only about a fifth of the electricity Eskom produces. Heavy industry, particularly smelters, use a vast amount and pay far less per unit than the public. To put it into perspective, a single smelter can consume as much electricity as the entire Western Cape. So building more nuclear power plants is not for the benefit of the public – it is for the benefit of large, energy-intensive industries. Renewable energy has the potential to create far more local jobs across South Africa than nuclear plants.

Nuclear power is always centralised, which means there are a few large power stations. In contrast, renewable energy plants tend to be smaller installations distributed around the country. Distributed installations mean distributed jobs, so renewable energy will mean more jobs spread out for people around South Africa without the need to migrate to a few select locations.

The highest number of sustainable jobs for any technology is always in the manufacturing sector. Say, for example, we build three nuclear power plants versus 2 000 wind turbines. It is probably not worth building a factory in the hope of supplying parts to one or more of the three nuclear plants, whereas it would be viable to build a manufacturing facility for an order of 2 000 wind turbines.

Who stands to benefit financially?

[DS] Nuclear reactor jobs pay about 30% more than in similar industries-and thus the workers and their families will benefit, together with some local businesses that will supply goods and services to these plants.

[PR] The corporations who sell nuclear technology, and the people they choose to benefit from their generosity.

What about all the radioactive waste?

[DS] Koeberg’s waste is already being stored safely. Low-level waste, such as contaminated gloves, is permanently disposed of in leak-proof underground containers at Vaalputs in the Northern Cape. The fresh, hot, high-level waste is initially stored in water in spent fuel pools on site at Koeberg. The older, cooler waste is later packed into dry concrete casks, where it remains for 40 years, at which point it will have to be tested, repackaged and stored for another 40 years. This cycle can be repeated indefinitely until the waste will one day no longer be dangerously radioactive. So we already have a safe – but admittedly clumsy – solution. However, we are looking for an even better solution that will be permanent and will not require repackaging. Scientists generally agree that an excellent solution has been found: deep geological storage. Here the radioactive waste will naturally decay to insignificant levels after about 1 000 to 60 000 years, but this is being blocked by the “greens”.

PB]Tins is probably the single biggest problem with nuclear power. A plant such as Koeberg results in about one truckload per week of low and medium-level waste, which is taken to Vaalputs and buried.High-level waste is the nuclear fuel once it is no longer useful, or spent fuel. This is removed from the reactor, but it is still highly radioactive and remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Koeberg was designed to hold five years worth of this waste on site. It was anticipated that by 1991 a solution would be found as to what to do with it, but 20 years later no solution has been found. So far, about 1 000 tons of high-level waste has just accumulated at the Koeberg site. This is a serious danger: it was the presence of this kind of waste that contributed to the disaster at Fukushima.

Now for the big one: what about safety?

Repackaging or burying waste deep underground is also not the solution. What right do we have to give this waste problem as a “gift” to future generations?

[DS] During the last three decades we have experienced two serious nuclear accidents where large amounts of radioactivity were released into the environment: Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. (Three Mile Island in 1979 released very little radioactivity and is therefore excluded). Due to improvements in the safety designs of the reactors and better accident management techniques, the amount of radioactivity released into the environment decreased tenfold from Chernobyl to Fukushima.

As a result, the estimated number of people who will die due to radiation-induced cancer from the Fukushima accident has been sharply reduced to less than 40 per year, averaged over the next 25 years. While each premature death is a tragedy, these numbers are small compared to other industries. Your chances of being killed by a nuclear accident are 1. 75 million times smaller than being killed by other dangers faced daily, such as driving a car or even eating hamburgers or chocolates.

Nuclear technology is also continuously getting safer. While our remaining Generation II nuclear reactors can suffer a core meltdown and leak radioactivity, similar to Fukushima, they cannot explode anymore as Chernobyl did. Amazingly, the latest Generation III nuclear reactors, which are included in South Africa’s IRP, and the Generation IV reactors are designed so that they cannot leak radioactivity during an accident. This means that if we were to use the next 2S years to identify and replace all our older, less safe nuclear reactors with these newer reactors, it can be expected that any subsequent accidents will not kill a single person.

[PB] There are 43S nuclear plants in the world, and there have been three major meltdowns which resulted in an evacuation [Three Mile Island in 1979, Chemobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011]. This is an accident rate of about 0.7%, which in safety terms is a very high failure rate.

Yet the nuclear industry frequently claims that nuclear power is “perfectly safe”, or that a major accident will happen only “once in a million years”. There has been nuclear power in the world for about SS years and we have had three major disasters that’s on average one every 18 years.

If even more nuclear plants are built, the chance of an accident increases. Is the risk of one nuclear disaster every 18 years – or less – acceptable?

Of course, it is claimed that the next nuclear plant design will be even more fool proof than the last. After the Three Mile Island meltdown, the design of a valve sensor was found to have a flaw. After the explosion at Chernobyl, it was claimed such a major disaster was impossible with the reactor designs used outside of Russia. After Fukushima, it was said that such a large tsunami was “beyond reasonable expectation”. What will the next story be? It could be unexpected corrosion, a small design fault in a safety mechanism, poorly implemented training, poor maintenance (a loose bolt perhaps, Mr Erwin?), an earthquake, an unexpected flood or storm surge caused by climate change, intentional sabotage, or some combination of these. We will only know after the next disaster.

Nuclear power is like a sleeping dragon. If we can keep it slumbering, its warm breath is useful to us. But if it ever wakes up and gets out of control, there is no structure on earth that can contain its awful power. And that power can leave behind radioactive land which is uninhabitable for centuriesto come.

*Dawid Setfoniein’s paints in this debate represent only his personal views and not those of the School of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering or the North- West University itself.

[Source: Ndifuna Ukwazi]