Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman

Nuclear is so Third World

Our government, it seems, may be dangerously close to repeating the e-toll fiasco with nuclear energy. As with e-tolls, by the time the pubic wakes up to its implications and how it effects them, the contracts are signed and the citizenry is on the hook for billions.

Bad planning in energy needs is not unique to us. It’s something governments struggle to get right. Italy was having rolling blackouts at the same time we were. Now we’re switching off energy looters such as smelters to keep the lights on elsewhere in the country. What is not talked about is that every time we do this, we handsomely compensate the smelters for their loss.

Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Government has signed off on an energy plan and it includes nuclear. This will be the biggest procurement deal in the history of the country (at least R300-billion, conceivably R1.4-trillion) and yet there is far less transparency than there was around the e-toll system.

This is why MP Lance Greyling (who says he is not ideologically opposed to nuclear) called for an urgent debate on the matter in Parliament, but this was shot down by the speaker in February.

“Foreign nuclear companies seem to know more about South Africa’s Nuclear Fleet Build Programme (NFBP) than the South African public,” says Greyling, who is now resorting to the Protection of Information Act (PAIA) to request a copy of Treasury’s pre-feasibility study.

This despite the fact that the National Development Plan states:

South Africa needs a thorough investigation on the implications of nuclear energy, including its costs, safety, environmental benefits, localisation and employment opportunities, uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication, and the dangers of weapons proliferation . . . All possible alternatives need to be explored . . . A maximum of one year remains to agree on a decision-making process for nuclear investments. [November 2011]

Such a thorough investigation, I think, is unwarranted. Nuclear can be thrown out at face value. The cost is simply prohibitive and the time frame impossible.

The NDP itself casts doubts on the whole project: government faces major challenges in financing the capital cost of a nuclear fleet (in other words the potential to bankrupt the country), and it notes that we don’t have the institutional and skills base needed to run a fleet of reactors.

It is true that post-Chernobyl, post-Fukushima reactors have made steady technological and safety advances, but there has been no progress on cost. If anything, capital costs have risen which is why no developed country is considering nuclear as a panacea for climate change.

As Tristen Taylor, project co-ordinator of Earthlife Africa, recently voiced in an open letter to the minister of finance, the industry is notorious for cost overruns and delays. For example, the Olkiluoto reactor in Finland which was to have come online in 2009 is still at least a year off, and its cost has ballooned from €3-billion to €5.3-billion. It is being built by the company most likely to get the contract in South Africa.

Greyling points out that committing to nuclear “will lock us into an energy future for the next 40 years and will take away any flexibility to shift our energy policy and investment resources into other technologies which are rapidly coming down in price”.

This is perhaps Greyling’s clincher.

Nuclear is so Third World; an expensive, hazardous, problematic technology for suckers. The French are the nuclear industry leaders and they are facing declining demand in the developed world. Francois Hollande’s victory yesterday is more bad news for the industry. They are now desperate to sell their technology to corruptible developing countries especially the aspirational Brics.

This past weekend, as a result of the Fukushima disaster, the last of Japan’s 54 nuclear power stations were switched off. Already under Schröder, Germany announced it will abandon nuclear energy (currently 20% of their supply) by 2020, and Merkel has confirmed this. Other European countries have also gone cold on nuclear.

It is the intention of the Germans to invest €300-billion to crack renewable energy, energy efficiency and new energy technologies.

As economist Mark Blyth has pointed out, while everyone else is in denial or hostage to vested interests, the Germans are responding to the obvious: fossil fuels are running out; the world has an insatiable desire for more energy; and the planet is warming up. “Whoever figures out how to make sustainable green tech in the next 30 years gets to sell it to everybody else for the next thousand. That’s what they’ve [the German’s] figured out.”

The nuclear industry is almost as shady as the armaments industry. The story of how nuclear reactors spread around the world is a fascinating read; General Electric and others played Europe off against North America and vice versa by basically lying to governments.

Interesting, too, is how the engineers were ignored by the accountants; nuclear engineers had always maintained that the power stations were simply too big to be safe. These big reactors are all accidents waiting to happen, and so far (in the 50-year history of nuclear power) the world has been lucky. Instead of listening to the people who design the things, we’ve been patting ourselves on the back.

My concern is not so much the record on nuclear safety, but the fact that when things go wrong they go horribly wrong. Koeberg has already got a tatty track record (readers may recall Alec Erwin’s lost bolt). Do we want another six of these highly complex installations? We have Africa’s only nuclear reactor; we don’t need another one.

Nuclear is not an insurable risk. If a serious nuclear accident happened in South Africa, the clean-up and containment costs can easily run to billions of dollars, and we would be dependent on foreign expertise to rescue us. According to a Japanese government panel the Fukushima disaster is going to cost Japan anything from $71- to $250-billion!

Meanwhile the department of energy says the NFBP is in the “final stages of consideration”; apparently there is now a nuclear Plan B in the works.

For an economy the size of South Africa nuclear expansion is a dead end. If nuclear has any future it will be when the Chinese figure out ways to make it affordable. It also appears that small modular reactors, the type you find on ships and submarines, are the only practical future application.

Government has been fiddling around with otiose nuclear ambitions for over a decade now. Isn’t it time to call it a day? A small fortune has already been spent and millions more will be wasted just keeping the nuclear energy pipe dream alive for the sake of nuclear nationalism and promises of the biggest, juiciest tenders in the history of the country.

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