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Why South Africa should go nuclear

South Africa is forging ahead with nuclear energy, as announced by president Jacob Zuma in his recent state of the nation speech. “Catastrophe”, was one immediate prediction. Nuclear power has a bad reputation, but is Zuma actually right this time?

Nuclear power has a bad reputation. Reactor meltdowns, fears of radiation and nuclear waste as well as the high costs of building large-scale reactors have negatively impacted the image and subsequent development of nuclear power plants. However, guest writer Brandon Finn argues that these fears are blown out of proportion, and that countries like South Africa should consider developing more nuclear reactors because they are safer and cleaner than most people think.

The demand for energy is increasing globally as populations become more urban, and middle classes emerge more prominently from developing countries such as South Africa. Jacob Zuma, recently commented in his State of the Nation address (2014) that South Africa needs to expand its nuclear programme in the future. (Executive director of the Free Market Foundation, Leon Louw believes nuclear power would be a ‘catastrophe’, according to a report just published on Moneyweb, while Times Live predicts a corruption scandal somewhere down the line.) Given that South Africa relies heavily on coal, calls to produce carbon-emission free energy have increased in recent years. Renewable sources of power such as solar and wind usually lead this debate and are touted as solutions to the challenges posed by climate change. Wind and solar energy have grown by 200% and 1200% respectively between 2007 and 2012, but unfortunately only provide a fraction of current global energy requirements.

I am not making a case against further investments into renewable energy sources (neither does Zuma), but aim to highlight that they are a long way away from being able to reliably provide the country with the majority of its energy needs. This is where nuclear power comes into the picture.

Safer than you think
Nuclear power does not release CO2, and offers a pragmatic answer to South Africa’s clean(er) energy future. Nuclear energy is often associated with the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, and the accident that occurred at Fukushima in 2011. The Chernobyl meltdown was undoubtedly a disaster. The Chernobyl building was inherently unsafe, with the reactor not having a container building. However, the number of death rates from the meltdown have been largely overstated by the media. In his book Nuclear 2.0, Mark Lynas references an official World Health Report from 2006 which shows that the current death toll with proven links to the Chernobyl disaster stands at 50 people – with 6,000 children suffering thyroid cancers that were successfully treated. This death toll and cancer prevalence represents a terrible outcome – one that rightfully suggests that nuclear power plants should be carefully managed and regulated. Nuclear reactors have developed significantly since 1986 and people should judge reactors on current available technology instead of the outdated, inherently unsafe reactor that was Chernobyl.

The disaster at Fukushima is another example of the dangers associated with nuclear energy that those opposed to it commonly draw upon. The accident at Fukushima – which resulted from an earthquake in Japan in 2011 paradoxically shows what strides have been made in the safety features of nuclear reactors (which have improved, even since then). Contrary to alarmist news reports, not a single person died as a result of the Fukushima meltdown. An UNSCEAR report from 2012 confirmed that to date, no children or any other member of the population has suffered negative health effects as a result of the (preventable) meltdown at Fukushima.

In fact, when compared to all other conventional sources of energy production, nuclear energy produces the fewest deaths per Kilowatt. Nuclear energy is even safer than solar energy as the latter contains highly toxic waste metals and solvents.

NECSA (Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa) workers are seen here checking radioactive wasted drums, in Pretoria
NECSA (Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa) workers are seen here checking radioactive wasted drums, in Pretoria

Two other major concerns are levied against the proliferation of nuclear energy: radioactive waste and its high costs. Current stockpiles of uranium (as contained in old nuclear warheads) can be used by the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) which prevents the necessity of mining for more uranium. The development of a new generation of reactors called the ‘liquid fluoride thorium reactors’ (LFTRs) when used, can actually reduce the amount of thorium waste (which is a by-product of rare-earth mining) and use it as a fuel for energy. Essentially, this new generation reactor is able to use current radioactive waste as fuel.

The question of cost
Cost is clearly a significant factor facing pragmatic policy makers who are looking to provide their populations with CO2 free energy sources. While this is a drawback to the proliferation of nuclear plants, one must consider the alternatives if policy makers decide not to proceed with the development of nuclear reactors. Abandoning nuclear energy would mean continuing to rely on fossil fuels such as coal, which significantly adds to global pollution, which is reported to have killed over half a million people around the world in 2012. Halting the development of nuclear plants undermines the quest of environmentalists to reduce CO2 emissions as seen in Germany – which has done exactly this and increased its reliance on coal. This has seen their CO2 emissions being almost double that of France’s – a country that relies heavily on nuclear energy as part of its energy mix. France has shown how the proliferation of nuclear power plants results in a great reduction of carbon emissions.  Incidentally, it keeps all of its waste beneath the floor of one room in one building.

Cooling towers of the Orlando Power Station in Soweto, Johannesburg. The plant was shut down in 1998, after supplying coal-powered electricity to the area for more than half a century. Photo by Leorex (via Flickr)
Cooling towers of the Orlando Power Station in Soweto, Johannesburg. The plant was shut down in 1998, after supplying coal-powered electricity to the area for more than half a century. Photo by Leorex (via Flickr)

South Africa’s two nuclear reactors at Koeberg produce 5% of the country’s electricity. The government’s recent commitment to the development of further nuclear plants is to be lauded. However, with the country’s demand for energy steadily increasing, perhaps greater investments should be made into this already existing clean source of energy. The startup costs of building nuclear reactors are high, but these become manageable as maintenance and the longevity of nuclear reactors result in reasonable costs for the subsequent energy produced over 80 years. Essentially, nuclear energy buys into the common environmentalist’s notion of ‘investing in the future’.

South Africa relies heavily on coal, and indeed we can thank this fossil fuel for being a reliable source of energy for so long. However, coal as an energy source must now be phased out. Can countries such as South Africa afford to build nuclear energy plants? Considering the urgent requirements to mitigate the effects of high carbon emissions and climate change, perhaps the more important question to ask is: Can we afford not to?

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