By Roger Diamond

My last article generated some good discussion, including some vehement pro-nuclear commentators who reckoned I should climb back into my time capsule and go back to the 1980s. This post aims to point out the merits of such time travel!

Firstly, if nuclear power is so great, why is it not being pursued more actively? In particular, there are alternative technologies to the standard (Koeberg style) PWRs (pressurised water reactors) or similar BWRs (boiling water reactors). These alternatives include use of thorium instead of uranium, breeder reactors, fast and slow types, and the PBMR (pebble-bed modular reactor), a design tried in the US and Germany in the 1960s-80s and now being pursued by the Chinese and here at home in South Africa.

In theory these different designs offer huge advantages over traditional PWRs, yet despite decades of research, none of these are at a commercially viable state. I believe the Chinese PBMR is operational, but in SA we have spent many years and several billion (yes billion) rands on research and still do not have a plant on the ground. The Chinese also seem to be putting far more money into building the traditional reactors and not replicating pebble beds. Why? Perhaps the pebble bed is not as great as the punters would have us believe. OK, hi-tech deserves long and expensive research programmes, but the results so far aren’t great. I’m not saying abandon nuclear, I just want to point out that nuclear is not as hopeful as we’d like.

The last word on building of nuclear power plants is that even the traditional models are not being built at such a lick. Somewhere, somehow, investors aren’t keen, and my suspicion is that expense is at the heart of their concerns, and not waste (environmental) or accident (social) issues.

The second issue I’d like to raise is that of externalities. These are the real costs not included in the financial cost of an item or service. In the case of nuclear energy, the externalities are associated with mining of uranium, decommissioning and high-level radioactive waste disposal. These are the costs not being added into the price of electricity from nuclear power plants. Specifically, mining of uranium has, like any other mining, a basket of costs that are being put off for future generations to deal with, namely groundwater and surface-water pollution, land disturbance and rehabilitation costs, dust etc. If these were costed into the life-cycle analysis for nuclear power, it would be even more expensive than it is now.

True, coal mining has an even greater basket of externalities (acid mine drainage, air pollution, climate change, mine voids etc) than uranium mining, but then there is no radioactive waste or specialised decommissioning. A coal-fired power station could theoretically be used for a rave party (now my time capsule is in the 1990s) after nothing more than a quick hose down. The jury will probably be out until after humanity has gone, on whether nuclear or coal was worse for the environment in the long run.

Externalities are where renewables get very competitive. Use of coal and uranium has huge externalities, whilst renewables only have the indirect effects associated with energy and resources used to construct and transport the energy-harvesting devices. And this is where renewables, as one commentator pointed out, are not 100% sustainable. It does takes a significant amount of energy (and other resources) to construct renewable energy harvesting apparatus, like a wind turbine, especially considering the relatively small amount of electricity that they generate. To match Koeberg Nuclear Power Station’s output (assuming 70% availability of 2 000MW), three to four thousand typical wind turbines would have to be erected!!

So neither nuclear nor renewables are carbon free, and they suffer from many difficulties compared with the ease of fossil fuel use (especially oil). Unfortunately, as Peak Oil bites, we will have no choice but to pursue these lesser quality energy sources, if we do not fundamentally adjust our usage of energy.

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