by Roger Diamond

As global warming gets hotter on the international political agenda, and with recent oil price volatility, the nuclear power proponents have jumped on a bandwagon to promote “the peaceful atom” as a means to power our society. Although some of these proponents are reasonable and measured about the realities of nuclear power, others belt out a list of truly amazing nonsense about nuclear power, including it being carbon free, nearly infinite in supply, totally safe and cheap.

Let’s look at some of these claims in a little detail. Carbon free? When uranium, or any other fissionable material, reacts, indeed, it does not give off any carbon dioxide, or any other greenhouse gases. However, almost every other aspect of the production of nuclear power does.

Let’s start with mining uranium. It’s one of the least abundant elements in the earth, but fortunately for us, it has been concentrated in the crust and further into certain rock types, such as granites (like in the Cape) sandstones (like in the Karoo) and conglomerates (like the gold-bearing Witwatersrand Supergroup). But even in these rocks it occurs in very small quantities — so small that the occurrence is measured in parts per million! This means that you have to process whatever ore you mine to get the uranium out.

Then we need to bear in mind the physics of uranium, where only 0.7% of the uranium you get is the 235U that is fissionable — fissionable is a fancy word meaning that the atom can split apart and give off energy in the process, according the famous E = mc2 equation. So the uranium has to be refined in a way that concentrates the 235U isotope and reduces the 238U concentration. This refined uranium then has to be made into very hi-tech fuel elements, long rods made with carbon, boron, special steel alloys and other expensive items. All of this has to take place under strict radiation safety controls, with well-trained and paid staff, at hi-tech facilities. Lastly there is the transport of the fuel elements to the nuclear reactors — in the case of Koeberg, fuel now comes from France, although once it was made at Pelindaba near Pretoria.

All of this mining, processing and transporting activity uses energy — fossil fuels to be precise. But that’s not even the big energy user in nuclear power. The biggest factor is probably the building of the power stations that have to be over-engineered for terrorist strikes, earthquakes, careless operators and Greenpeace, who have a tendency to jump the fence and dangle banners all over the big concrete containment structures! Seriously though, the energy consumed in earth moving, making thousands of tons of cement and building a nuclear power station, is very significant. Maintenance of the power station also consumes energy, as does the transport and disposal of the low and medium-level radioactive waste, but the big unknowns in nuclear power are decommissioning and disposal of high-level nuclear waste.

All of this activity is driven by fossil fuels and so to say that nuclear power is carbon free is to pretend that nuclear power stations descend from the heavens and that fuel rods grow on trees, neither of which are particularly believable. It is also to ignore the challenge that decommissioning and high-level waste disposal pose.

Next is the claim that uranium is so abundant. The problem with uranium reserves is just like any other resource, in that the ores range in concentration from those that yield lots of uranium, to those with very low concentrations that will require greater energy to mine and process. Ultimately the activity reaches a point where the energy invested is greater than the energy returned — a negative EROEI (energy return on energy invested). Some estimates are that if all electricity globally had to come from nuclear power, we’d have only a few decades of such energy.

Thirdly is the claim that nuclear power can be made totally safe. Even if there was no radiation involved with nuclear power, it still involves mining, processing and heavy industrial activity that has safety hazards. It is likely though that the radiation hazards are the greatest concern, in the mining arena, at the power station and with waste disposal. The latter is an area that has not even been fully appreciated, as nowhere on earth has any high-level nuclear waste been finally and permanently disposed of — all are waiting in storage for a solution to this difficult problem.

Finally, the clincher is that all of this adds up to make nuclear power rather expensive and uncertain, and so the predicted boom in nuclear power has not materialised and in fact, the construction of new nuclear power stations is only keeping pace with the decommissioning of old ones built in the 1960s. This is even without the years of expense that we look forward to in guarding and maintaining radioactive hulks of concrete for the rest of civilisation so that they don’t crumble and leak radiation or demolishing the monstrosities and finding a hole to bury them in.

So, exactly how much power are we getting for all the fossil fuel we have used and will continue to use in suckling “the peaceful atom” on our society? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’d say not much. Nuclear power is not much more than an obtuse way of burning fossil fuels and passing on an uncertain legacy to future generations.

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