Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Nuclear power carries risks that are simply not worth taking

In the wake of President Jacob Zuma’s recent lone ranger escapade to Russia, evidently to secure Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assistance regarding South Africa’s energy needs — the status of which seems to be uncertain at present because of accusations and denials of him acting unilaterally flying to and fro — the question, whether one should go down the nuclear road or not has become very topical. As it should, because despite nuclear energy’s reputation of being carbon-free, there are other, equally important considerations about its desirability.

Not that nuclear energy is completely environmentally friendly — the environmental costs of building a nuclear reactor are huge. The mere costs of building it are astronomical, and just the amount of concrete and cement involved already denotes considerable negative environmental impact. The manufacture of cement is one of the most ecologically damaging processes in existence. But, the argument goes, once it has been built it exceeds other energy options in efficiency and eco-friendliness.

Be that as it may, here I want to concentrate on the risk factor entailed by operating nuclear reactors as sources of energy. The Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents (or disasters, if you like), the most recent of which was the latter, which occurred in Japan in March, 2011, are all testimony to the risks and long-term dangers of nuclear energy as opposed to renewable energy sources.

On a more philosophical note, putting nuclear energy and its attendant risks into perspective allows one to see this phenomenon as a specific case of human hubris (in ancient Greece, human arrogance, particularly as shown to the gods) — harnessing prodigious natural forces with a concomitant, overweening confidence that these powers can be controlled by humans in a failsafe manner.

Needless to stress, the three instances of nuclear calamities referred to above stand as irrefutable evidence that such a human-all-too-human conceit is misguided and unsupportable. In a recent edition of TIME magazine (September 1, 2014, pp. 14-23) Hannah Beech gives a fascinating, but disturbing glimpse into the circumstances surrounding the Fukushima disaster of 2011, as well as its lasting consequences in human as well as economic and political terms. Reading it impresses upon any receptive reader the foolishness on the part of the ruling party and its representatives in South Africa, to embark on the nuclear “highway” without a thorough public consultation process, if not a referendum.

Beech and two colleagues visited the north-eastern coastal Fukushima Daiichi site of the catastrophe triggered on March 11 2011 (3/11) in the wake of a huge earthquake and ensuing tsunami, when a complete power failure led to a collapse of the essential cooling system. As a result three of the nuclear-reactor cores overheated, leading to radiation-emissions that spread over the surrounding farms and fishing villages, with devastating consequences. Here is a paragraph from Beech’s article that gives one a good idea of the material as well as temporal extent of the nuclear meltdown’s consequences (p. 16):

“Three and a half years after the most devastating nuclear accident in a generation, Fukushima Daiichi is still in crisis. Some 6 000 workers, somehow going about their jobs despite the suffocating gear they must wear for hours at a time, struggle to contain the damage. So much radiation still pulses inside the crippled reactor cores that no one has been able to get close enough to survey the full extent of the destruction. Every two and a half days, workers deploy a new giant storage tank to house radioactive water contaminated after passing through the damaged reactors. We wander past a forest of some 1 300 of these tanks, each filled with 1 000 tons of toxic water, some of which was used to cool the reactors.”

This is so mind-boggling that it approaches what is known in philosophy as the “terrible sublime” — something so exceedingly, unimaginably destructive that it is truly imponderable (like Auschwitz, or Hiroshima). For one thing, can anyone imagine the significance of the sheer volume of that much contaminated water, considering that radiation takes literally thousands of years to dissipate?

Just how seriously Japanese authorities took the disaster is clear from the fact that all 48 of Japan’s other nuclear energy plants were taken off-line after its occurrence, and the question, whether some should be restarted, is still subject to controversy in the country. As an aside, the questions surrounding “3/11” in Japan have reverberated around the world — Angela Merkel’s administration in Germany, for example, where the anti-nuclear movement has been strong since the 1970s, has undertaken to shut down all Germany’s nuclear reactors by 2022, and eight of the 17 existing ones were permanently closed after the Fukushima incident.

Getty

Getty

This should ring alarm bells on the part of the South African public. Germany is known globally for its technological expertise, and if the Germans are sufficiently concerned about the risks accompanying nuclear energy, South Africa should not rush headlong into an agreement with Russia about the construction of trillions of rands’ worth of nuclear reactors. Add to this that, if the Japanese, who “ … bow before the temple of precision, fetishizing detail and safety” (Beech 2014, p. 17), were caught off-guard by an event that should have been foreseen, what chance does South Africa, not generally regarded as being among the most efficient nations in the world (except when it comes to collecting taxes), have to succeed in anticipating ALL eventualities that might lead to a nuclear meltdown at a reactor?

After all, Fukushima was built right next to the Pacific Ocean, in a country among those most susceptible to seismic tremors in the world, which in that case led to a tsunami that caused a fatal loss of electricity supply, causing the meltdown and subsequent radiation leakage. Considering Eskom’s track-record in South Africa, what are the chances that a similar, fatal interruption in electricity supply might set in motion a sequence of events resulting in a nuclear meltdown and subsequent, disastrous consequences for the communities nearest the reactor, let alone the water supply and the topsoil, both of which would be seriously affected for a very long time afterwards? This is the fictional scenario in Eben Venter’s Horrelpoot, which might seem far-fetched to some, but to others is an all-too-realistic possibility.

Importantly, Beech dwells at length on the peculiar Japanese cultural mindset that played a significant role in allowing the disaster at Fukushima to unfold the way it did, and which the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, in its 2012 report on the catastrophe to the Japanese parliament (quoted by Beech, p. 20), comments on as follows with admirable candour:

“What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan’. Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity … the consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mind-set that supported it can be found across Japan.”

The consequences referred to in the report are dealt with in harrowing detail by Beech. And in addition to the 20 000 people who were killed by the earthquake and the tsunami many have since died as a result of the after-effects of the disaster. Not least among these is the increasing number of suicides because of mental and physical stress. It is impossible to tell, at this stage what the eventual toll will amount to; suffice to say that evidence of unacceptably high levels of radioactivity still prevail in the area around Fukushima, as far as 40km away.

Before taking the step to construct nuclear reactors on a relatively large scale in SA the ANC government should do the responsible thing by taking note of the Japanese experience and test the attitude of the public at large to nuclear energy.

Image – Anti-nuclear activists protest on March 10, 2013 in Kobe, Japan. (Getty)

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    • mark

      Nice article Bert, but the scariest position for me is that Russia has specific legislation regarding nuclear power, which takes authority from the government and gives it directly to Vlad and a select few. There is no oversight in mother Russia.

      So why would be support a package deal from this BRICS member when our country does have these oversight and watchdog structures? Does this mean we can expect some policy reform to remove nuclear power into the murky waters of presidential agreements and secret keypoint strategies?

      or will there be some poor fall guy/girl who gets crucified at the alter of public placation when the deal falls flat or the Geiger counters beep in neighbouring properties.

    • Policat

      Public participation processes will fail to have any impact on decisions that have already been made by the powers that be. From what we read there is already commitment and that means signed documents so there is no turning back bar a change in governance which is unlikely or with luck, Jesus will appear. All that will happen is crisis and damage control which is the way the country is being managed at present. Forward thinking and the sustainability of future generations does not form part of government planning unfortunately although there is plenty of lip services and endless talk shops that come to nothing. Instant self-gratification now rules.

    • Momma Cyndi

      The chances of a 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami occurring in South Africa is unlikely. If we were regularly plagued by Mother Nature throwing tantrums, our own Koeberg (and Pelindaba) would have been making us glow in the dark decades ago.

      With the leaps in ‘green’ technology, it nuclear seems a little redundant. A trillion Rands worth of pressure, solar and other methods, would seem a lot more logical.

    • http://www.eagle.ca/~gcowan/ G.R.L. Cowan

      This is very much a thought follower’s piece. Some of the things it says about Japan are true, but only if you replace all references to radiation with references to government greed.

      Greed? Yes: a tax on liquefied natural gas was giving the Japanese government a $140-million-a-month Fukushima bonus up until October 2012, according to https://eng.rim-intelligence.co.jp/news/select/category/refinary/article/86405 . At that time the tax was due to be increased, with further increases to follow.

      Too bad we can’t know what the political and biological effects of Fukushima levels of environmental radioactivity would be if no fossil fuel money were involved … oh wait, we can, and fortunately they are nil, or close enough: “Distribution patterns of natural radioactivity and delineation of anomalous radioactive zones using in situ radiation observations in Southern Tamil Nadu, India”.

      A great many people have lived in that hot zone for a great many generations. It’s not unique. Among other natural, permanent Fukushimas there is the Brazilian beach made famous by youtube videographer ‘bionerd23′, and people voluntarily spend time there, but perhaps no-one lives there a whole normal lifetime as they do in the Indian zone.

    • Eugene

      Assuming that renewables will never be able to take the place of fossil fuels, humanity as a whole will have little choice but to switch to nuclear power, whatever the risks (it is unlikely to be as risky as returning to a medieval way of life).

      South Africa, of course, still has plenty of cheap coal, and we don’t actually need to switch to nuclear for several centuries to come (if we stop exporting all our coal to China and use it ourselves instead!) One may indeed be forgiven for being a bit nervous about importing nuclear technology from Russia, of all places.

      But newer generations of nuclear power stations are far safer than they used to be, and in the longer run we may switch from uranium to thorium, which is safer still.

      As for Germany, the very first winter that 50 000 German greens freeze to death in their homes because of lack of power, they’ll probably change their minds about nuclear power stations. Or start importing power from France (which seems not to have too much of a problem with nuclear power).

    • Rainer

      I have nearly 30 years of experience building, start-up and maintaining power stations. That would be Gas, Oil, Coal and Nuclear. A power station is controlled by a Control and Protection System called a DCS or PLC. A DCS/PLC is a type of industrial computer…..
      Give me a piece of wire, proper drawings, a screwdriver and pliers and I will bypass any protection system on any power station.
      On a power station, a Control & Protection system is only as safe as the people working on it.
      In Gauteng South Africans cannot even maintain a water pumping station, how are they going to maintain a nuclear power station????

    • Comrade Koos

      Good article Bert. Despite the devastating environmental impact of nukes from mining uranium to nuclear accidents, to unsafe storage of nuclear waste, to closing down old plants that repeatedly leak, nuclear energy is extremely costly.

      Nuclear energy must go the same way the E-toll is going, and that is South.

      >>>

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    • Paul S

      As far as supplying base load capacity is concerned, nuclear is currently the only carbon neutral option for replacing polluting sources like coal. Wind and solar are possible future scenarios, but they can’t supply enough currently. Do some research and you will note that the majority of nuclear incidents have been caused by human error, not system failure, and realistically there are very few of those incidents. That said, I agree that nuclear is inappropriate for SA, simply because the country has almost completely lost the engineering capacity and competencies needed to run these stations safely. ESKOM has demonstrated that on numerous occasions, and that with simple coal-fired stations.

    • Comrade Koos

      Baselaod from renewables:

      What The Science Says: Numerous case studies on both regional and global scales have determined that renewable energy, if properly implemented, can provide baseload power. There are a number of renewable energy technologies which can supply baseload power. The intermittency of other sources such as wind and solar photovoltaic can be addressed by interconnecting power plants which are widely geographically distributed, and by coupling them with peak-load plants such as gas turbines fueled by biofuels or natural gas which can quickly be switched on to fill in gaps of low wind or solar production. Numerous regional and global case studies – some incorporating modeling to demonstrate their feasibility – have provided plausible plans to meet 100% of energy demand with renewable sources.

      It takes 18 months to construct a wind farm or solar plant. It takes 8 to 10 years to construct a nuclear power plant, and no nuclear power plant has ever been commissioned on time or on budget anywhere in the world.

    • http://Bloghome Chris2

      Since German wisdom frigures in your text, it reminded me of the German saying “Cobbler, stick to your last”. Considering grave errors of judgement in German history and the arguments and discussions that lead to them, I think the German nuclear policy in terms of progressive thinking is more or less on par with the vote for Hitler in 1933, but the former is a better joke. IMHO both show that a commanding faction of Germans can be spectacularly wrong. Despite the large installed capacity of windmills and solar panels, they find it necessary to build coal fired stations to replace the lost nuclear capacity. They are still trying to figure out how to build an ‘intelligent network’ to be able to use the alternative sources constructively. Germans are fortunate to sit within the large European power grid network, which allows imports and exports of electricity on a considerable scale.
      According to operational histories, nuclear or coal fired power stations deliver more than 90% of their installed capacity, the deficit is due to scheduled maintenance. On average, wind power delivers only about one sixth of installed capacity, coupled with large variability and solar electricity fares even worse. The greens won’t tell you that. Industrial safety analysis, which measures the number of actual fatalities per unit output, consistently shows nuclear power to be orders of magnitude safer than any other energy producing system, despite the major mishaps like Chernobyl and…

    • http://Bloghome Chris2

      ….. Fukushima. In the latter case the tsunami (which was more than three times higher than the maximum expected) took more than 20 000 lives, the nuclear radiation, which got almost all the press coverage, nil. The relevance of Fukushima to German nuclear is almost as much as a meteorite strike on the moon or Mars is to us. To use Fukushima as an argument to stop German nuclear power generation (as it has been) is truly mind-boggling.

    • Davel

      Well put, Chris2. It is also interesting to note that the British have just received EU approval to go ahead with plans to build a $30 billion nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. The UK, like Germany, is also known for its technological expertise so it is clear that Europe is not in any rush to abandon nuclear energy, as Bert suggests.

    • Rocking Horse

      The net economic benefits of renewable electricity in Germany amount to about 6 billion euro ($8.5 billion) per year. While renewable electricity costs the nation’s consumers an estimated $3.3 billion euros ($4.7 billion) annually in differential costs (the cost premium of renewable over conventional power) and the provision of energy balancing (balancing electricity generation and demand), the government estimates that its benefits are far higher. The economic benefits of renewable energy totaled more than 9 billion euro ($12.7 billion) in 2006, including fuel-import savings of 0.9 billion euro ($1.27 billion), avoided environmental and health damages worth approximately 3.4 billion euro ($4.8 billion), and a decline in wholesale electricity prices amounting to 5 billion euro ($7 billion).

    • Bert

      Chris2 – Show me the nation that has not made grave errors of judgment in their history, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to modern-day America. Humans are not infallible, and neither is technology. Read Beech’s article, and you’ll see that there are plenty of deaths that have been linked to radiation. And was it a coincidence that the Merkel government made the decision to abandon nuclear energy immediately after Fukushima? I don’t think so.

    • http://roryshort.blogspot.com/ Rory Short

      The facts are (1) that the deleterious radiation effects of nuclear accidents last for thousands of years (2) it is impossible to guarantee that there will never be a nuclear accident. Surely given these indisputable facts deciding to go for nuclear power can only come from people who are either completely ignorant or willfully blind to the facts for personal reasons.

    • No Nukes

      @Davel

      Why does Hinkley Point (UK) nuke facility have to be so heavily subsidized?

      Austria is set to accuse the European Commission of misinterpreting the rules over state aid after it gave the go-ahead to Britain’s planned £18billion nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset.

      The (UK) Government is subsidising the new plant by creating a ‘strike price’, or minimum guaranteed price, of £92.50 per megawatt hour for 35 years, which is about twice the current price of electricity.

      Green renewable energy is the only answer.

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    • Karim Esakala

      Where Nuclear Safety and proper operational procedures are followed Nuclear plants can contribute positively to a countries development.
      The Magnox Reactors at Oldbury de-commisiioning started in 2013 after 50 years of service. Yes it will take up to 2098-2101 for final decommissioning but the reactors were allowed to operate from 2008 to 2013 to pay for the decommissioning costs.
      There are successes and there are failures. I just feel that nuclear is too much of an easy fix for our country.
      It would be possible to create 30 to 50MW bio-diesel capacity in all B3 to B5 municipalities which would give a great boost to manufacturing and create agricultural jobs and significant economies in these councils.

      A deeper policy re-think that is not only geared towards say the processing of sintered manganese but rather at developing the more impverished municipalities which during peak demand can detach from the national grid and use their own generation capacity.

      If this were done we could reduce the number of Nuclear stations that are needed and possibly reduce your risks of a nuclear accident. Further the VVER design is quite a modern design that is actually approved(?) by the IAEA and due to their passive safety and low levels of nuclear enrichment (below 5%) does not increase the risk of international isolation (that nuclear enrichment can be used for weapons purposes).