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.
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)