South Africa ’s nuclear industry is known for its dirty tricks, the least of which was keeping an atomic bomb programme under wraps for decades. Now the industry would like us to believe that we are going through a “nuclear renaissance” in which atomic power will become a “safe and reliable source of energy”, and uranium is the next miracle resource in terms of jobs and foreign investment.
Like the asbestos junkies of the seventies — all those Rand-lords who once proclaimed: “asbestos is safe”, or the mercury polluters at Thor Chemicals in the eighties, who simply denied any responsibility for their workers — today’s nuclear protagonists will eventually be forced to eat their words. Indeed there is already talk of forthcoming asbestos-type, uranium hearings, to determine the health impact of communities affected by ongoing emissions from Koeberg; the health of workers exposed to radioactive uranium during mining and milling, and the exposure of communities living in the Krugersdorp-Randfontein area where both the Tweelopiespruit and Wonderfonteinspruit have been contaminated by uranium mine tailings.
Part of the illusion generated by spin-doctors and the media is that the new PBMR programme and its associated conventional nuclear plan, is so large and expensive, that it is virtually unstoppable, in the same way our government’s arms deal, was a fait accompli — beyond the point of no return.
This despite considerable opposition from Economists Allied for Arms Reduction (ECAAR). While the cost-factor in terms of the fiscus is alarming, it is the true cost measured in terms of public health and safety, and overall impact on the environment, which needs to be understood, if we are to turn back from the brink of continent-wide contamination and the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation.
Predictably the overall impact of nuclear energy, like so much about the industry, is being hidden behind a wall of disinformation, literally drowned out by spin-doctors and so-called experts who wish to create the illusion that we are “in no immediate danger” from either the PBMR technology, conventional nuclear plants or new uranium mining congealing in our own backyards.
The illusion is compounded by a sense that technology will solve all our problems and the environmental impact assessment process will somehow arrive at a happy conclusion.
For starters, the impact assessment process is flawed by the participation of Arcus Gibb consulting engineers, who have a long history of working for Eskom and consequently a vested stake in the nuclear programme. The same firms building the project are now supposed to deliver an “independent” or impartial assessment of the project’s likely impact on the environment.
Left up to the engineers, the public hearings and environmental concerns expressed by ordinary citizens, would have no impact, and neither would the nations ethicists, theologians and educationists, but we can be thankful, at least there is a modicum of accountability and a sense of public participation after considerable pressure from groups such as Earthlife Africa and Koeberg Alert as well as other stakeholders.
Unfortunately, the narrow focus of the environmental impact study is unlikely to take into account considerations that challenge the efficacy of nuclear power, the right to use nuclear energy, and the basis for claims that emissions are not harmful to either humans or the environment. As a spokesperson for the South African Council of Churches has said: The Nuclear Issue represents a “Kairos” or turning point – at which we need to take stock and make decisions on global, continental, regional, national, provincial, city, local and personal levels to live in a sustainable way.”
The original Kairos document in the mid-eighties challenged the way churches reasoned on social and political issues to do with apartheid. This was referred to as “liberation theology” and had an enormous impact in terms of the way the church dealt with the state, along with poverty and the environment. Today we are in a similar conundrum, in which the post-apartheid system – built on state coercion, government technocrats, covert bureaucracy — has translated into a massive nuclear programme that includes plans for a fusion-type reactor and even a particle accelerator.
What is the price of re-admittance to the exclusive nuclear club? For starters South Africa is now home to uranium futures dealers, nuclear proliferators and arms merchants. Surely the “peaceful use of atomic energy” is an oxymoron if ever there was one and like “military intelligence” the phrase is a contradiction in terms. Can one really measure the cost of lives lost as a result of the use of depleted uranium weapons by the US and UK military in Iraq, weapons ironically created from the metal originating from uranium mines in South Africa?
Can one really factor in the health of workers who are exposed to radioactive tailings during mining, milling and processing, and the lives of communities effected by continuous radioactive emissions from nuclear plants such as Koeberg and square this with the children still living in Bazra, Southern Iraq, who continue to be exposed to radioactive dust, not to mention sufferers of “Gulf War Syndrome” — the “obscure” medical condition associated with exposure to war munitions?
The Iraq Children’s Tooth Project and Basra epidemiological study are ongoing projects conducted by the International Campaign to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW). Both attempt to document levels of depleted uranium contamination in children who live in or near areas contaminated with uranium oxide dust particles, derived from the use of depleted uranium weapons. Large volumes of DU weapons were used in Southern Iraq during 1991 and 2003.
To compound matters and make this saga even more troublesome, one has to talk about the presence of a legal framework created by the Nuclear Power Act and National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) — A framework that has allowed the export and use of depleted uranium along with routine emissions of radioactive isotopes such as Strontium90 and Ceasium137 from nuclear plants such as Koeberg, in other words, the contamination of our food supply, the despoliation of our water and the creation of a regime in which informal settlements and communities are allowed to live in areas like the Robinson Dam, now considered radioactive. All these activities are apparently disclaimed from public liability by the agency.
So although we may get upset about depleted uranium, or radioactive emissions from Koeberg, which exceed plant specifications by a factor of 10 to 1 million, (the safety limits have continually had to be raised merely to accommodate the increased emissions and the plant continues to operate outside its own engineering specifications) and we may shout about the Gulf War and the affect of contamination at Wonderfontienspruit, (where the levels of Uranium are 1000 to 1 million times higher than the background Uranium concentrations), our outrage falls upon deaf ears when it comes to the National Nuclear Regulator.
The culture of secrecy created during the apartheid era persists. The nuclear industry continues to act as if it were business as usual — a week-long International Atomic Energy Agency conference hosted by NNR in Cape Town to discuss such topical issues as nuclear waste, emerging technologies and tax exemption and insurance disclaimers for such schemes, was really just window-dressing and a sad attempt at public relations by the industry.
The nuclear waste issue, for instance, has never been solved, since the half-life of the resulting plutonium is measured in 100 000 years it is unlikely to be solved by a week-long conference. Taken into consideration, the entire nuclear cycle, (from mining, milling and processing, to enrichment and waste disposal), is both uneconomical and a serious drain on resources, as is the cost of hosting such conferences.
A gullible public is told in all earnestness that the nuclear waste issue will be put “underground” or that new technologies such as “fusion” will put an end to the waste problem and the waste facility at Vaalputs is “world-class”. The disease has been given a name by Dr John Gofman, the man credited with proving , beyond a reasonable doubt that small amounts of ionizing radiation have a negative impact on health: hormosis or the belief that low-doses of radiation are good for you.
Bare in mind, fusion has never been successfully contained, and the forces generated by the sun, are unlikely to be harnessed in such a way, on this planet. It is far cheaper to simply tap the geothermal energy within the planet itself, or to come up with a better method of generating solar energy. (Other forms of kinetic energy, like a sky tether would also suffice. Innovations in material engineering may make such technology possible, by simply harnessing the energy generating by the rotation of the earth, and the resulting gravitational drag, which results in friction i.e kinetic energy)
Is there an exit strategy from the insane logic of the “nuclear renaissance”? For instance, J. F. Siebert, a former consulting engineer for the SA Atomic Energy Board, Eskom and the National Nuclear Corp of UK, certainly a person with good credentials, recommends in a submission to the Department of Environmental Affairs & Tourism’s, Portfolio Committee convened to look into the matter, that “nuclear power should not be adopted on a massive scale until the full potential of hydro and solar-generation in the sub-continent has been explored.”[Emphasis added]
As a compromise position, Siebert suggests “not more than two Koeberg-type nuclear plants should be ordered by Eskom”, including “two PBMR plants,” While brilliant, this is exactly the plan envisaged by Erwin, however it is seen as a compromise compared to suggestions by industry pundits that we build 80 or so PBMRs and seven conventional plants, along with signing contracts for the export of the technology to the rest of Africa, Asia and beyond. If this all sounds a bit like the bait-and-sell technique employed by used-car salesman, then you are right. Since the bells and whistles programme seems completely absurd, why not settle for the absurdity of four new plants, (two conventional, two PBMR) none of which have an environmentally-friendly and public safety track record.
The PBMR, as it is currently designed, does not have any safety features other than the core technology. For instance there is no containment building, “perhaps to make the design economically feasible” comments Anthony Frogget of Heinrich Boll Stiftung (in a commissioned article which questions the data provided by the PBMR company to explain the risk factors involved in a potential disaster). Eskom continues to maintain the design is “walk-away safe”, this despite the technology never having been tested and claims to the contrary by 15 eminent scientists. The energy utility has yet to arrive at a workable evacuation plan for Koeberg in the event of a major accident, as if risks weren’t a factor in energy policy.
Perhaps we should all sit back and take another perspective, a longer view? The apartheid regime lasted forty years and took a concerted effort by activists, trade unionists, church groups and ordinary citizens to dismantle. We are now faced with a government run technocracy willing to sacrifice its people for profit, able to contravene the constitution without fear of reprisal, and prepared to dump the struggle for human rights while covering-up the constitution in radioactive sludge, and all because of the mirage of unlimited growth and unbridled economic power. How long do you suppose it will take to dismantle South Africa ’s nuclear energy programme? Another decade or two, or just a more focused, popular grassroots struggle?