Creating a nuclear nightmare

2011-03-22 00:00

AS the world watches the Japan disaster with increasing horror at the prospect of another possible nuclear meltdown (The Witness, March 15) with the potential to pollute the environment for decades, even centuries, contemporary plans for nuclear expansion should evoke dread in all who care for the health of our planet.

In October, the South African government released its plans for a major expansion of nuclear energy by building six new nuclear power plants over the next years, reaching completion in 2023, estimated conservatively to cost at least R600 billion. Earthlife Africa, along with other organisations and individuals, has expressed alarm at these developments. It is reported that the government has already wasted more than R9,4 billion. over the past 12 years on a nuclear programme that produced nothing of any value, but is still recklessly prepared to embark on yet another project without any thorough investigation into why this previous plan failed.

However, the monetary wastage is but a small factor in this ill-considered energy planning. The most menacing aspect is apparently no detailed examination of methods of dealing with the highly radioactive, dangerous waste produced by these power stations; nor the cost involved to store this waste. Also, how much might it cost to decommission these installations in the future?

These are problems that will be bequeathed to future generations long after the architects of these ill-thought-out plans are dead and buried. It is these children, who as adults will inherit the impact of the hubris of over-hasty decisions; just because some self-important, blustering politicians consider going nuclear to be a sexy solution to a global crisis, without making a responsible study of the already proven, clean and reliable energy sources of solar and wind technologies, amply available in this country.

We only have to look to the experience of Britain to get a picture of the ultimately unmanageable difficulties involved in producing nuclear power. Calder Hall, the world's first commercial nuclear power station, part of the notorious Sellafield nuclear complex situated on the coast of Cumbria, and Chapelcross in southwestern Scotland were both commissioned in the late fifties, and are currently in process of being decommissioned, beginning in 2007.

Both these power stations have a grim history of leaks of radioactive waste, of problems with attempting to store high-level toxic waste safely, and of reports of children in the areas manifesting higher than normal levels of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Sellafield having recorded 21 serious incidents of accidental or deliberate discharge of radioactive material into the atmosphere, as well as into the Irish Sea. An open pit storage of radioactive "leftovers' at Sellafield, 20 metres wide, 150 metres long and six metres deep has caused enormous consternation, as birds landing on or near it take small amounts of waste with them, the pool is not watertight with cracks allowing for leakage of contaminated liquid, and levels of radiation around the pool at times so high that a person cannot spend more than two minutes in the vicinity. This obviously causes great problems for decommissioning.

Both the Irish and the Norwegian governments have over the years called for the closure of these two reactors, as monitoring of sea water swept across their coasts reveals radioactive materials which are feared to be contaminating fish, and Irish cattle have been found to be contaminated with Plutonium-239, rendering their milk and meat toxic.

Wikipedia reports Sellafield as comprising "the most hazardous industrial building in western Europe"; the cost of decommissioning and waste disposal as being approximately £1,5 billion per year, probably until 2037.

Despite this appalling reality, many in the nuclear industry continue to claim that nuclear power is clean and safe, ignoring the fact that human error, mechanical fatigue and failures, as well as climatic and geological factors, will continue to pose risks and undermine the most carefully constructed and monitored facilities. However much spin the advocates employ, whether they attempt newspeak by referring to radiation as "magic moonbeams' or support the desirability of children who glow in the dark, even the best Japanese engineers cannot control the seismic movement of tectonic plates.

All environmentally concerned South Africans need to challenge this government's nuclear plans. It is time we learnt vital lessons from the mistakes of others.

• Dr Alleyn Diesel is an honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, specialising in Hinduism in the province.

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