The Energy Crisis: Nuking Into the Future

by Oct 1, 2010All Articles

By Victor Munnik

Nuke ambitions riding high

Grabbing the opportunity of the climate change crisis, the nuclear industry has presented itself as a carbon-free energy source. There are a number of arguments against this: first, there is not enough uranium on the planet to fuel a big enough nuclear industry to make a difference to climate change; second, the mining and enrichment of nuclear fuel remains energy intensive; and third, nuclear energy is still dangerous to the environment, and in the absence of a solution to its growing waste problems, a threat to a democratic society.

As this article goes to press, two nuclear greenwash events are spinning through our country. The loud event is the hosting of discredited ex-Greenpeace activist, now timber magnate, Patric Moore, by the nuclear industry to sing its praises. The other is the settling, quietly and behind closed doors to avoid more public attention, of a legal dispute in which the nuclear industry had tried to shut down the indigenous documentary Uranium Road, which is critical of the nuclear industry. Together these events show an industry keen to publicise support for itself while trying to silence criticism.

High tech, high secrecy, high cost and extremely centralised – nuclear energy is ideal for an elite with high ambitions. Nuclear capability and membership of the exclusive ‘nuclear club’ of international nuclear scientists and nuclear diplomats looks good on the CV of a country who wants a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations.

South Africa – in its apartheid phase – joined this club because the US and Britain lost their access to sources of uranium on the wrong side of the iron curtain in Europe. It started extracting uranium cheaply from mine dumps where it was left with other wastes from gold mining. The US later donated the Safari research reactor and, in 1982, the French built Koeberg. Uranium enrichment facilities were developed at Pelindaba to supply fuel to Koeberg and to develop the ‘apartheid bomb’. This facility was shut down in the early 1990s, relieving Eskom of the cost of subsidising NECSA’s enrichment process. Since then, cheaper nuclear fuel for Koeberg has been imported from France. French technicians also fly in regularly to service the Koeberg power station – local technical ability is not up to the task.

Pebble beds

The nuclear scientists regrouped within Eskom with the ambition of developing the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR), an unproven ‘fourth generation’ nuclear technology abandoned by the Germans. In 1999, PBMR (Pty) Ltd was constituted as a separate company owned by the South African government, the state-owned Industrial Development Corporation, state-owned Eskom, and British Nuclear Fuels. At that time, government planned to unbundle and privatise Eskom, and the PBMR project was hardly likely to attract investors. The estimated costs of constructing just the demonstration model have escalated from R1 billion in 1998 to R10 billion in 2004, and to around R16 billion now. Time frames for completion of the demonstration model have also receded. In 2005, Public Enterprise Minister Alec Erwin said ‘Government wants to produce between 4 000and 5 000 MW of power from pebble bed reactors in South Africa. This equates to between 25 and 30 PBMR reactors of 165 MW each. The project is now factored into our future energy planning from about 2010 onwards.’ If these reactors are ever built, there will be a great many radioactive pebbles being transported on our roads.

Government claims it can market a further 75 reactors to other countries and evidently hopes to offload it on African and other developing countries, claiming that its small size makes it appropriate to those markets. However, while the PBMR corporation regularly announces ‘interest’ in the PBMR, there have been no orders and no new investors. Maybe this relieves us of the burden of worrying about PBMRs going into countries where there is no trace of regulation or protection of the public against nuclear hazards!

Real nuclear power stations coming your way

In October 2006, soon after the Cape Town blackouts, Erwin suddenly announced that the state was ‘considering’ new conventional Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) to meet electricity demand: ‘There will be debate around this issue but, as a country with an acute need to improve the lives of millions of our people, we have to take a hard-nosed pragmatic approach to the issues of energy.’

Clearly, the decision had already been taken. There was scarcely time to draw breath for debate before Eskom announced concrete plans for building a new PWR. At a state Energy Summit in September 2007, Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica told delegates that Eskom is investigating the construction of up to 20 000 MW of new nuclear capacity by 2027, while NECSA expects nuclear capacity to increase to about 27 000 MW by 2030, ‘including 12 new large PWR units and an initial set of 24 PBMRs’. There are two contenders to build these plants: Westinghouse and the French company Areva. A single PWR will cost at least R100 billion.

To fuel these plants, along with South Africa’s high-tech ambitions, former Eskom CEO Thulani Gcabashe has been tasked with coordinating the rebuilding of the nuclear supply industry from mining to fuel fabrication and transport. A fuel enrichment plant at Pelindaba is
expected to be completed by 2010.

Eskom is already deciding where to build the first new PWR. The environmental impact assessment is now in process and Eskom says construction will start in 2009 or 2010
and electricity production in 2016. The station is similar to Koeberg – PWR and sea water for cooling – but more than twice the size at 4 000 MW with provision for expansion. The estimated cost is R100 billion but the history of cost overruns on nuclear projects would suggest this figure should be multiplied by three or four.

Potential locations are: Thuyspunt near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape; Bantamsklip near Pearly Beach in the Western Cape; Duynefontein, the site of Koeberg; Brazil between Kleinsee and Port Nolloth in the Northern Cape; and, not far from Brazil, the farm Schulpfontein near Kleinsee. Eskom says the PWR should be close to the main centres of
demand. This suggests that the Eastern and Western Cape sites will be the front runners. On the other hand, the Northern Cape locations might fold into Eskom waste plans if, as is suspected, it intends sending high-level nuclear waste to the existing low-level waste dump at Vaalputs, near Springbok in the Northern Cape.

Growing anti-nuclear movement

Whatever site is chosen, the plans announced by Sonjica suggest that all sites will be used between now and 2030. This is provoking local opposition and the South African communities expected to ‘host’ the next PWR are on high alert.

Veteran anti-nuclear campaigner Mike Kantey has attended public meetings in these areas and reports that ‘each and every site has an active antinuclear lobby’ linked to each other ‘through an informal anti-nuclear network’. Public debates in Thuyspunt, close to Port Elizabeth and the nearby Coega, questioned the fact that alternative sources to nuclear power were not being discussed. In the Northern Cape, there are wellfounded fears that the Vaalputs lowlevel nuclear dump will eventually be made to take high- and low-level waste from the expanded nuclear industry. In July 2007, the community of Komaggas in the Northern Cape said they would not allow Eskom to go ahead with its plans to build a nuclear power station on their land. Andy Pienaar, a community representative, threatened: ‘I think from hereon we are going to shut these people out of the community and we are going to
make every effort to make sure that they do not erect a power station at Brazil or Schulpfontein for that matter.’ Residents resisting the new uranium enrichment plant at Pelindaba have organised themselves into the Pelindaba Working Group, also part of the new nationwide antinuclear alliance.

Oops, the mess

In the late 1970s, South Africa was the world’s largest producer of uranium, with nearly 16 million pounds per year from 17 mines and 21 uranium plants producing ‘yellow cake’. Some dedicated uranium mines were opened on the West Rand.

It seems unlikely that these facilities were ever decontaminated. According to a DME 2000 report, mines only became subject to nuclear regulation in the early 1990s, and of 30 contaminated off-mine sites, only 6 had been rehabilitated. New uranium mining will make the situation worse. In 2007 the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) confirmed local suspicions that uranium and other radioactive elements had accumulated in river sediments and groundwater systems in the Wonderfontein Catchment Area (WCA). The report warned that ‘the past and present discharges of radio-nuclides into the WCA as a consequence of mining activities can lead to considerable radiological impacts to the public via various exposure pathways, exceeding significantly the natural background level and also the dose limit for the public of 1 milli Sievert per annum, at several sites’. Exposure pathways include the use of river water for irrigation, absorption by cattle which drink from the river, and use of land contaminated during floods. It stands to reason that anybody who uses water from the river directly would be at a similar risk. The Wonderfontein flows through the western part of the Witwatersrand gold basin, draining old slimes dams and rock dumps from the gold and uranium mines in a section stretching from Krugersdorp and Kagiso to Carletonville and Khutsong. It then joins the Mooi River which feeds into the Potchefstroom municipal water supply. Local farmers and the Potchefstroom Petitioners have organised themselves to take action on the issue, while the NNR ‘has been in discussion with various stakeholders such as mining operators, other regulators and local authorities to address the areas of concern’.If the NNR can’t solve the problem of a single contaminated river, things look bad for a whole nuked up country.

Victor Munnik is a Gauteng-based independent environmental writer and Researcher

Read more articles from Amandla! Issue #1, March 2008

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