Business Day: ‘Stop giving the government a free pass on nuclear power’

Published in Business Day, 25 November 2011

‘The nuclear path will compound centralisation and elitism, and necessitate importing skilled foreign labour’

The Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town
No plan, nowhere to put it – for over thirty years, Eskom has been stacking up high-level nuclear waste, that will be dangerous for thousands of years, in Koeberg.

IS SA about to multiply and repeat the R40bn arms-deal debacle that has haunted our politics for more than a decade? The government’s decision to invest more than R1-trillion in six nuclear reactors — the equivalent of 30 arms deals — risks being a disaster for our fraying governance as well as for the economy. The amounts of money involved in the nuclear deal are an obvious magnet for corruption; the security risks inherent in the technology offer a million more excuses for secrecy.

The nuclear decision is justified by the conventional wisdom that we need infrastructure-intensive economic development to meet “the needs of our people”, that economic development demands economic growth, and economic growth demands huge power stations. Some consider it to be a necessary low-carbon alternative: South Africans are mostly unaware of the technological revolution unfolding globally in the renewable energy sector.

Activists question the nuclear decision on the grounds of radiation and proliferation risks. They point out that no country has solved the problem of how to deal with high- level radioactive waste and that it is highly unlikely that a problem that has so far defeated the likes of the US and Japan will be solved by SA. Despite having had nearly 20 years since the end of apartheid to find a responsible solution for managing high-level waste, Eskom continues to stack it up in racks at Koeberg, just as was done — disastrously — at Fukushima. The National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute, unfunded, exists nowhere but on paper.

Is a growing pile of unmanageable and lethal waste the legacy we wish to pass on to our children? The cost is more than ethical: the UK’s annual nuclear waste management bill is currently £2bn a year — an annual arms deal in perpetuity.

The logistics and ethics of nuclear waste management are just part of the governance equation. It is remarkable that those who call for a proper investigation of the arms deal and who challenge the Protection of State Information Bill are not thinking about the risks to democracy that accompany the nuclear project.

Alvin Weinberg, the former head of the US nuclear weapons research facility, came to question whether nuclear energy is compatible with liberal democracy because its complexity and security risks exclude proper democratic oversight.

The nuclear logic appears impeccable to the kind of technocrat that underestimates the human factor implicit in big-footprint high technology. These planners rarely anticipate the real-world messiness of nuclear power, which ranges from communities affected by uranium mining, armies of exploited labour even in countries such as Japan, and inevitable human error in managing complex systems, to the challenges of managing these technologies over time.

Recently, for example, US military engineers charged with disassembling 40- year-old ultra high-yield nuclear weapons had to invent new technology for doing so — the engineers, tools and skills used to build the bombs had all died or been lost. Hypnotised by technology, we regularly forget how fragile and indispensable is our human capital.

The judg ments of the business world on nuclear technology are unequivocal. Nowhere does capital invest in nuclear without government support and guarantees. Moody’s downgrades power utilities that have nuclear in their portfolios, saying, in 2009: “History gives us reason to be concerned about possible significant balance- sheet challenges, the lack of tangible efforts today to defend the existing ratings, and the substantial execution risk involved in building new nuclear power facilities.”

Citigroup, commenting two years ago on UK nuclear plans, wrote that, “Three of (five key) risk areas are so big and significant that, if they go wrong, the developer (even the biggest utilities) could be financially damaged beyond repair. These risks can be classed as Corporate Killers.”

Even the World Bank refuses to fund nuclear projects.

What of the opportunities that would be missed if capital that should go to renewable energy goes to nuclear energy instead?

A great many South African business people accept the need for social responsibility in their planning. They understand that an economy bedevilled by inequality is one also beset by many development problems. Inequality strangles demand, creates skills shortages, and increases risks of crime and disease, just for starters. It also threatens social and political instability, as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has pointed out.

So dealing with poverty and inequality is urgent. Yet the nuclear decision ignores the opportunities for decentralised economic development and badly needed job creation that would come with renewable energy, clearly outlined by the United Nations Development Programme.

The nuclear path will compound centralisation and elitism, lead to huge capital exports and necessitate importing expensive, highly skilled foreign labour.

There’s a further danger. The nuclear expansion programme has been justified by extremely ambitious economic growth projections, made in the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which lays out the country’s electricity planning for the next 20 years.

These projections looked ambitious even before the euro-zone crisis began to unfold. They are of an order that has been questioned by Gordhan. But Rand Merchant Bank , in a much-ignored research paper, has projected that as Eskom’s price increases take effect, overall demand for electricity will, rather than doubling as the IRP projects, in fact decline. Our real future needs for electricity, in other words, may be substantially lower than Eskom suggests.

Because uranium (unlike sunshine) is a limited commodity, the nuclear path commits us to constantly rising energy costs and, during construction, locking in our exposure to an increasingly volatile global economy.

Smarter countries are now building in resilience and stability through renewable energy. Iceland attributes its quick recovery from the recent collapse of its financial sector to its strong renewable energy base.

Much of the rest of the world is leaping to take up the renewables challenge, with developing countries now overtaking developed countries: $72bn worth of new investment last year and 32% up overall on 2009. By contrast, no new nuclear installations came online in 2008, despite huge subsidies, while renewables drew $100bn in private investment. While nuclear costs escalate, the price of solar-generated electricity drops 7% a year in the US, and the trend, according to Scientific American, is accelerating.

Of course a national switch to renewable energy will bring its own technical and reskilling challenges. It will require substantial modifications to the national grid (although mind-sets seem to be most difficult to modify). Yet it is a transition that offers us the chance of renewing and stabilising our economy where nuclear does not, and it poses no threat at all to our democracy.

And often it is remarkably quick and easy and, unlike nuclear, precisely scalable to match demand. The nuclear fleet will take about 12 years to come online. Meanwhile, Eskom has just announced 1,5MW of new solar photovoltaic power. That is tiny, of course. But the delivery date? Next week.

Given all these dangers, costs and likely missed opportunities, why is the South African media, much of civil society and a business sector that usually abhors systemic risk giving the government a free pass on the nuclear issue?

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Published by

David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

4 thoughts on “Business Day: ‘Stop giving the government a free pass on nuclear power’”

  1. Dear David,

    I wonder whether you are willing to tell the astonishing story of thorium? How, in the middle of the last century, mankind (without realising it) came to a fork in the road. Do we use this giant we’ve harnessed (splitting the atom) to generate electricity using uranium or do we do it using thorium? If the choice had been thorium in Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island might have been places we’d never heard of. Instead, industrialists (it appears) have wasted 50 years on a technology which has convinced 95% of humanity that the only sensible way to replace fossil fuels, nuclear, is a dangerous, expensive method with a legacy no one is willing to deal with.

    Yes, I’m “Vundla”, my Xhosa nickname when I was a boy. If you know Xhosa, you will know that the pronunciation is “voon-thla”. I got the name after being found fast asleep by the side of the road a number of times.

    When one first hears of thorium, it sounds too good to be true. Safe, cheap, sustainable electricity with a fraction of the “waste” which has a 300-odd year legacy – not tens of thousands of years. Not only is that waste easier and safer to deal with (no plutonium!) but calling it waste is misleading.because some of the components in that waste can be separated out and – in some cases – may be more valuable than the electricity produced while producing that waste! Proliferation? Nope. One cannot make bombs from thorium or its fission products or the “pseudo-catalyst” used to convert thorium (which is fertile not fissile) into electricity. So there’s another reason to wonder at the mistake we (mankind) made 50-odd years ago. Iran, nuclear bombs threatening Israel? Nah. If they are really building nuclear plants solely to produce electricity, then, if the world was thorium instead of uranium, that’s what they would be doing. The only “more” would have been the valuable by-products I’ve mentioned.

    Another of the advantages of thorium is the need for a “pseudo-catalyst” in the process. One must start the machine with fissile material. Our 50-year mistake has left us with more than enough of this! So instead of burying it (a VERY bad idea – what is buried is a mixture; after a few hundred years it is virtually pure plutonium!), “burn” it up in a LFTR. That Mars Rover launched on Saturday the 26th? It gets its electricity – and some heat to prevent the machine freezing up – from Plutonium 238. No, not Plutonium 239, Plutonium 238. Pu 239 is used for bombs. It’s the bad one. Pu 238 has powered our exploration of the solar system. It’s the good one – and we have almost run out of it. A LFTR fed with the right stuff (along with thorium) would result in a less efficient electricity generator, but Pu 238 is in the waste. Mankind could continue to explore space.

    So a LFTR is not only a means of generating electricity. Do you want to desalinate salt water? How about manufacturing a replacement for diesoline? Fertilizer for crops? Medicines unique in their ability to attack cancers? Even cement, for goodness sake!

    When I first heard of thorium I skeptical but intrigued. Could this really be the magic bullet we need to eliminate the pollution associated with fossil fuels? So I searched the internet and found or was shown a number of relevant sources. If you have watched this http://thoriumremix.com/2011/ (all two hours of it!) and if you’ve explored the links on it then you know who Kirk Sorensen is. Look at http://energyfromthorium.com/faq/ and then explore this entire site. You are looking for things like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bryony_Worthington,_Baroness_Worthington and, on a related topic, this: http://www.the-weinberg-foundation.org/. There are a large number of important names (present and past) but I think these three will lead you to all of these people.

    After reading this: http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm?aid=2469 not only did I understand E=mc2 (for the first time!) but there was no doubt in my mind that “renewable” energy is any thing but “green”, “earth-friendly”, call it what you will. Was the Hoover Dam a good thing? Well yes, at the time it gave a lot of (desperate) people work and it has faithfully produced electricity ever since. But what do we have today? Huge expanses of land drowned. Have species of indigenous fish been wiped out or threatened with extinction. If, at the time, there had been an alternative, one with a small footprint producing electricity efficiently and above all cheaply and sustainably, would that alternative not been a better one? When one has electricity one has power, the power to set up industries – and to employ people for life, not for the period of construction. Today we have an alternative to Hoover dams, wind farms and solar plants. In the latter two cases, note that pump storage schemes don’t stand up when a physicist takes a careful look. http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/11/pump-up-the-storage/

    Please appreciate that I am not an expert. Before I investigated thorium, I was one of the 95% with a fear for, a loathing of, things nuclear. Now the percentage is 94.9999999%! I’m hoping that I can change that last 9 to an 8, that I can convince you of my belief. This is that the word “thorium” should be shouted from every rooftop. South Africa may end up building one, perhaps two more uranium-burning reactors (we need the electricity!), but every other one after that must burn thorium, in a LFTR. It is the only sensible thing to do.

    I don’t expect a reply. I’m sure all sorts of crackpots are communicating with you hoping to convince you that their point of view is the only one worth anything. The only reply I’d appreciate is that you would let me know of the first article you publish on thorium, should there be one.

    John Randall.

    1. Hello John,

      Thorium may well be everything it’s cracked up to be.

      However:

      1) The technology won’t mature in time to avert much of the damage that is currently being done to the atmosphere by fossil fuel use.

      2) More importantly, I believe any kind of nuclear technology is essentially part of a “use as much as we can” attitude to natural “resources” (I use the word hesitantly because it exaggerates our sense of entitlement in respect of nature).

      If we are to live sustainably on Earth, I think we need a more modest attitude to consumption. At the moment, all too much attention is being given to finding alternative ways to power a consumer economy that is creating critical damage to the environment in all sorts of ways. But what we’re not doing is actually questioning the design of our economy.

      If we don’t learn to consume less and share better, then in the long-term we will suffer greatly, with or without thorium.

  2. Dear David le Page
    I am very grateful to you for your article in the Business Day drawing the attention of South Africans to the risks of proceeding with 6 nuclear power stations. Such a plan is unjustifiable, firstly, when so much progress has been made in wind and solar technologies and secondly, due to the legacy of radioactive waste which we pass on to future generations.
    According to a Nuclear Energy fact sheet produced by Project 90 by 2030, ” Sweden is one of the very few countries working seriously on a high level waste disposal site. In order to pay for this effective waste disposal site the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority has indicated a
    necessary increase of costs per electricity unit sold by some 300 percent.”

  3. Reblogged this on Eduard Grebe and commented:
    I am not in principle opposed to nuclear power in all circumstances. But, given that (1) renewables are price-competitive with nuclear already, (2) the much much greater potential for employment creation and economic development through local renewables industry development, (3) the huge debt South Africans will be saddled with, well into the future, if this deal goes ahead and (4) the huge potential for corruption through a deal of this magnitude, it would be unconscionable to support it.

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