Myth and misconception

2008-03-27 00:00

If there ever was an industry based on myth and misconception, it is the nuclear industry. It is shrouded in secrecy (especially from the financial angle) and, we, the public, are led a merry song and dance with selective information, spin doctoring of the highest order, and an internationally close-knit nuclear community feeding us information that is often downright wrong.

The first thought that comes to mind is the regular comparison between nuclear-powered and coal-fired electricity. Comparing bad with bad is not the way to go and we should really be looking at clean energy sources, not just differently harmful technologies.

Radiation kills — fact. Radioactive waste remains harmful for hundreds of thousands of years — fact. Nowhere in the world has a nuclear power station come in on time or on budget — fact. Radiation does indeed surround us, but here we are talking additional unnecessary radiation imposed on us for maybe 30 years of electricity and thousands of years of “waste management” as the consequence.

We are told that renewable energy (RE) is “intermittent” and “cannot supply baseload industrial levels of energy”. Indeed, the sun does not shine every day, nor the wind blow, but solar chimneys and tidal race (such as the Agulhas Current) can and do supply power non-stop, as do solar technologies that use “salts” for storage. The distributed model, where power is generated at many sources, can more than make up for intermittent sources too.

A key to understanding power generation is that although the sustainable options are more expensive up front, they do not have ongoing fuel costs. It has proved impossible to get the nuclear industry to provide financial information regarding life-cycle costs, both internal and external, so that we can make up our own minds as to which is preferable.

Even compared with existing combined gas cycle power generation, wind power is cheaper in the United States, despite the fossil fuel and nuclear industries enjoying massive subsidies.

In South Africa one wonders whether this push for more nuclear power is not simply a sign of mental colonisation — that we have to prove to the northern “developed” world that we are bright enough to work with sophisticated technologies. But we are actually in the enviable position of being able to effect a paradigm shift for our nation and take the bold step of leading the way in sustainable energy. The key to this is the need for the government to ensure that new entrants in the field of power generation get paid a fair price for the electricity generated. Eskom is in the position of using power stations that have already paid back their capital, so power is generated at low costs (especially as the external costs, such as impacts to health and environment from coal mines and power stations, are not included in the costing), but as is evident, new generation capacity will be very expensive indeed, hence the recently promulgated 14% increase granted to Eskom.

This trend will continue.

The kinds of reasons given not to promote RE are that birds suffer unnecessarily from wind turbines, but I have yet to come across a modern study proving this. No mention is made of bird strikes on transmission lines or cars, a far higher kill rate than wind turbines.

Or that it is not possible to “store” energy adequately. A key failure of these arguments is that power can indeed be stored, whether in pumped schemes or in sophisticated salts. Solar chimneys even generate power at night, as the Earth absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night, albeit at lower levels than during the day.

Micro-energy is also ignored, possibly as it is not a huge, shining technology project so beloved of engineers, but if each household had a two-way meter, where power you generate through micro-energy (usually solar or wind) reverses the meter as you generate and runs normally when you draw power, this would enable us to have many thousands of small-scale generators, collectively generating a substantial amount of electricity. This happens in other countries, why not here?

Our developmental ethos is also to blame. Despite our current crisis, the government seems determined to attract massive energy consuming industries to our country, through unbelievable subsidies. The proposed aluminium smelter at Coega will use as much energy as Port Elizabeth, yet will pay far less than you or I do.

Carte Blanche recently aired the documentary Uranium Road, based on the book by Dr David Figg. The Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa took it to the Broadcast Complaints Commission. This was settled out of court and we, the public, will probably never know why — more secrecy.

Finally, let us not forget that the so-called “routine” emissions are simply an additional and unnecessary radiation load imposed on all life. Radiation is without smell, you cannot touch it or see it. Everything that comes into contact with it is itself contaminated. Why bother with this technology, unless we have plans for a new round of nuclear weapons?

There seems to be no other logic to the race for more nuclear power, because all attempts to get copies of board meeting minutes or due diligence studies or simple economic outlines of proposed nuclear power plants are not forthcoming. It seems that the light of day is simply too bright for these masters of the dark.

• Muna Lakhani is a volunteer for Earthlife Africa, and is involved in the anti-nuclear, anti-toxics and Zero Waste campaigns. He is also national co-ordinator for the Institute for Zero Waste in Africa (IZWA), a not for profit NGO.

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