SA must remove nuclear blinkers

2011-07-16 08:41

Governments around the world are rethinking ­nuclear energy.

The German government has decided to phase out nuclear energy and 95% of Italians voted against the use of nuclear energy in a recent referendum. Indeed, what recent examples have shown is that nuclear power delivers too little, too late, and at too high a price for the environment.

Interestingly, the South African government’s response has been quite the opposite. Merely six days after the Japanese were reeling from a nuclear meltdown, the SA government approved the Integrated Response Plan (IRP2010), which allows for 9 600MW of new nuclear power, making up 12.7% of total power capacity by 2030.

This month, energy minister Dipuo Peters announced possible delays to new nuclear energy capacity, acknowledging the dangers of nuclear energy.

The minister said government will be guided by investigations arising from the recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. However, they are continuing with the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for Nuclear-1.

If South Africa is concerned about energy security, then the last option should be nuclear.

A nuclear plant takes more than a decade to build, is ­dependent on a non-renewable resource, creates dangerous ­radioactive waste and is very costly. In contrast, renewable energy capacity can be built much faster, and without the safety, environmental and ­financial risks ­associated with nuclear power.

Globally, nuclear has been declining for decades. The cost of nuclear energy is a deterrent.

According to Citibank, a large reactor would cost between R40 billion and R80 billion. But in reality, it is difficult to ­estimate the final cost of a nuclear reactor as the full costs are only established at the end of the project – at which time the amount spent is usually way above estimates.

Two European Pressurised Reactor units under construction in Finland and France are facing costly construction delays for this reason. Construction in Finland started in 2005 and is four years behind schedule, ­having exceeded the budget by close on 100%. The pressurised reactor in France has experienced cost overruns of 50% to €5 billion (R48 billion), and commissioning has been delayed by two years to 2014.

In South Africa we witnessed the same with the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), where the initial project estimate in 2002 was R1 billion, but by last year when the project was shut down, it had cost R10 billion and there was nothing to show for it.

The environmental impact ­assessment for Nuclear-1 is fraught with defects. The first concern is how one can assess a project when the detailed ­technical descriptions of the proposed nuclear plant are not even available?

The second concern is that the exclusion zone for emergency planning purposes around the power station complex is within 800m.

The environmental impact ­assessment states “internationally accepted exclusion zones are being considered for ­Nuclear-1”.

But the exclusion zones considered are based on the European Utility Requirements, rather than a standard underlined by regulations.

The third concern relates to the disposal of waste. The EIA states that there is sufficient capacity for the disposal of all types of waste at the reactor sites itself and that the “potential impacts of these forms of waste should be minimal”.

This is concerning given the lessons being learnt in Fukushima. After 60 years and billions of dollars’ worth of studies, there is no solution for long-term ­storage of radioactive waste.

The claim that nuclear power could be a solution to climate change is false. The Energy Technology Perspectives 2008 report shows that even if existing world nuclear power capacity could be quadrupled by 2050, its share of world energy output would still be below 10%.

Even if this massive increase were possible, it would only reduce CO2 emissions by 6% compared with the 21% reduction renewable energy would provide. Unfortunately, our government’s delay is not an indication of intent to stop nuclear energy plans. It still has its blinkers on – our challenge is to open the government’s eyes.

Nuclear is a dangerous distraction from the clean energy development needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The reality of climate change means we urgently need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Safe and clean renewable energy technology is ready to go and, partnered with energy­efficiency programmes, it’s what South Africa really needs.

It can be done!

» Adams is a Greenpeace Africa climate campaigner

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