Global warming and climate change pose a serious threat to societies of today and finding cleaner energy sources is a big challenge. It is evident that South Africa needs to move away from coal-fired power, but the Government’s move towards nuclear power as an alternative has sparked controversy.
1. Health Impacts
There is no such thing as a “safe” dose of radiation (See also WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 632.5701 “U.S. radiation panel: no radiation dose safe”). There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that low doses may actually be more dangerous, as they may mutate cells more easily than high doses, which can kill the cells.
There is no debate as to whether radiation kills, maims, causes mutations, is cumulative, causes leukaemia, cancers, respiratory illnesses and attacks the immune system (with children, pregnant women and the elderly most vulnerable) because we already know it does.1 The only disagreement is about what is legally considered an allowable dose.
Between 1940 and 1950 scientists laid down the first ‘safe’ levels of radiation: 150mSv per annum. The ‘safe’ level of exposure has continually been adjusted downwards as more research into the dangers is carried out. By 1990, the annual acceptable level of exposure in South Africa was reduced to 20mSv for occupational exposure and 1mSv for the general public. (This limit is ten times higher than the limit laid down by the European Committee on Radiation Risk).2
It has been claimed with respect to the PBMR that nuclear meltdown would be impossible. However in October 2001, Mr D.A. Powers, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Advisory Committee on Nuclear Safeguards, stated that the PBMR was seriously flawed, since the chaotic and unpredictable movements of the fuel balls inside the reactor vessel were a prescription for core instability. 3
Uranium mining is responsible for the greatest proportion of the health-related damages of the nuclear power industry. There seems little doubt that communities living near nuclear plants are at risk. Before South Africa begins to build new reactors, epidemiological (health) studies of communities around Koeberg, Vaalputs and Pelindaba need to be carried out.
There is no responsible way to “dispose” of radioactive waste and it can remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, equivalent to 10,000 generations. There is no plan in place for the long-term storage of, or any final disposal site for, radioactive waste anywhere in the world. How can the nuclear industry expand without having resolved this problem or even finding a ‘safe’ place to store its wastes? It would be like developers building a high-rise with no toilets!
Low-level nuclear waste storage sites are built in rural areas far way from densely populated areas. Is it fair to expose people to such risks simply because they live in rural areas that are generally not well represented and without political influence?
Nuclear waste is a responsibility for hundreds of thousands of years and it will be future generations that will bear the much of the health, environmental and financial costs. The best solution would be not to produce any radioactive wastes in the first place; the next best is to stop producing more now.
The proposed PBMR has already cost R2 billion (around US$330 million) and is expected to cost another R11.3 billion (US$1.8 billion). This could increase to as much as R25 billion (over US$4 billion) if decommissioning costs are included.4 South African taxpayers and electricity consumers will bear these costs. The demonstration plant may not make a profit but a loss. The cost of electricity can only be brought down to competitive levels once 32 reactors have been built, a very unlikely scenario, given that not a single order has been placed to date. 5
The PBMR business plan is largely based around the economies of scale requiring many customers and many reactors. The estimated costs of the demonstration plant increased fivefold from R2 billion (around US$330 million) in 1999 to R10 billion (US$1.6 billion) in 2004. Media reports now estimate the costs to be in the region of R14 billion (around US$2.3 billion).6
The costs of the project continue to escalate and the proposed delivery schedule is continually being postponed. Due to time delays, the first commercial unit will only be completed by 2014. This technology will not be able to meet South Africa’s short-term electricity needs and is not the solution to our current shortages. Nuclear power is expensive electricity.
All States in the USA with nuclear power charge, on average, 25% more for their electricity.7 The costs of nuclear power do not stop once plant construction is completed. Nuclear plants need to be decommissioned after their (approximate) 40-year life span. The radioactive spent fuel produced by nuclear reactors needs to be stored safely for thousands of years before it loses potency, which has enormous cost, health, environmental and social implications.
Nuclear power subsidies takes money away from clean alternatives and consumes funding that should be used to develop proven clean, renewable sources of energy like wind, water and solar.
4. Design Success
In theory HTGC reactors have several advantages over other types of reactors but historically these have not materialized in practice. An HTGCR at St Vrain in the United States was eventually closed down in 1989 after a number of problems were experienced. During its operating lifespan of ten years, it experienced an average load factor (% of maximum power) of 15%. Reference has been made to a German plant with a similar design to the PBMR that ran for 21 years. However, this plant was a small prototype AVR plant that produced no electricity so could not be called a power plant. Its thermal output was 15MW compared to the proposed 400MW for the PBMR, so comparing the two seems foolhardy.
5. Climate change
The global nuclear industry is exploiting concerns over global warming by misrepresenting nuclear power as a carbon-free electricity source and global climate saviour. However, the complete nuclear fuel chain is extremely energy intensive and dirty.
The nuclear fuel cycle releases CO2 during mining, fuel production, transport, plant construction and decommissioning, as well as for waste management far into the future. Uranium enrichment is one of the most energy intensive industrial operations and as demand for uranium grows and lower grade ores are used, so CO2 emissions are expected to rise.
The Kyoto Protocol excludes nuclear energy; it was not recognized as a clean alternative to fossil fuels. New nuclear energy projects would not be able to provide an offset mechanism for carbon emissions.
Climate change may alter the market for nuclear energy, but it will not make uneconomic technology economic. Promoting one environmental disaster to solve another catastrophe is illogical to say the least.
6. World Market
The PBMR business plan is based around the economies of scale and requires high volumes of export. Who is going to buy this technology?
Internationally respected analysts have shown that the worldwide market for nuclear power grew by less than 1% per annum over the last decade.9 The market for Renewable Energy (RE) is growing in leaps and bounds between 25% and 45% per annum.10 It is strange that such supposed cutting edge technology as the PBMR is failing to attract foreign investment.
7. Public input
Public money is being spent without public accountability. The High Court found the Environmental Impact Assessment process to be fatally flawed when Earthlife Africa took the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism to court. The submissions made by Earthlife Africa and other appellants were not even looked at by the decision-maker.
The PBMR is being substantially funded by public money, yet an economic feasibility study commissioned by government and completed by a panel of international experts is not in the public domain. The World Bank no longer funds nuclear programmes of any kind but the public purse is expected to bear this burden. Why should taxpayers fund the project when they are not given the chance to comment on the Feasibility Report?
8. Transport of radioactive materials
If ten PBMR’s were built there would be approximately one vehicle carrying radioactive materials every second day and approximately seven carrying chemicals every working day, for 40 years between Durban, Cape Town and Pelindaba. This could grow to nine radioactive, and 145 chemical trucks, every day at full production.
Eskom’s job estimates for the PBMR are based on achieving a substantial number of export sales, about 20 per year, and are highly speculative. However a detailed examination of the world market shows that few nations are likely to order new nuclear plants. Many of these jobs can be attributed to the second round effect whereby jobs already in existence, in for example the steel industry, are included in the total.
The amount of local people eligible for the PBMR jobs would also be quite low. South Africa has just signed a contract with Spanish manufacturer Equipos Nucleares. The group will design and manufacture the main power system pressure boundary, the steel backbone for the proposed pebble bed modular reactor’s (PBMR) demonstration plant.
Renewable Energy can create about 27 times as many jobs as nuclear energy and jobs in the renewable energy generation sectors, like wind power, already have local people making up about 60% of their work force, and increasing.13
10. Renewable Energy (RE)
South Africa is rich in wind, solar and ocean RE resources. In the USA, wind is already cheaper than coal, especially when the health impacts are taken into account. In addition to wind, there are many other RE options, including wave, photovoltaic, solar thermal, biomass, micro-hydro, etc.
A mix of these technologies could easily provide all of South Africa’s energy requirements. Studies have shown clear evidence that there are sufficient RE resources in South Africa to provide for 13% of the electricity demand by 2020, and easily 70% or more by 2050.RE is clean, sustainable, efficient and safe. South Africa’s short-term electricity needs cannot be fulfilled by the PBMR due to time delays; the first commercial unit would only be completed by 2014.
Immediate action is needed to address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector. Demand side management, RE and energy efficient technologies, not nuclear, are proven and viable solutions. Africa should not be a dumping site for nuclear waste or a testing ground for unsafe nuclear technology.
It is unjustifiable to use public funds to sponsor nuclear plants that are a threat to the environment and to people. South Africa needs environmentally responsible development that will lead to an improvement in the quality of people’s lives and will lead to truly sustainable development – economically, socially and environmentally.