Andreas Späth

Do we really need a nuclear smelter?

2013-02-25 14:00

Andreas Späth

Since its birth, the nuclear industry has been beset by a number of intractable problems, among them its propensity to produce an ever-growing mountain of radioactive waste that nobody really knows what to do with for the very long periods of time that it will remain dangerous.

Our very own state-owned Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) thinks it’s found the solution for 36 000-odd bits and pieces of atomic scrap metal at its notorious Pelindaba site near the Hartbeespoort Dam, about 30 kilometres west of Pretoria: melt it down in a smelter.

If that sounds like a somewhat dubious idea to you, you’re not the only one. A number of environmental organisations and residents' groups have raised serious concerns about the project, which has been on the cards for years without ever really attracting a whole lot of media coverage.

Necsa has applied for a Nuclear Installation Licence from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) for the construction and operation of the smelter facility, and some observers believe that it will be issued shortly.

As taxpayers, we should certainly be concerned about the estimated R20m which is about to be spent on a questionable attempt to clean up the remains of apartheid's toxic A-bomb mess.

The proposal

Over the years, Necsa has accumulated some 14 000 tonnes of waste metal “lightly” contaminated with uranium. About 70% is steel, the rest is aluminium, copper, brass, nickel, cast iron and bronze and almost all of it comes from the decommissioning of uranium enrichment facilities at Pelindaba, the place where South Africa’s atom bombs where developed, built and stored.

Necsa's plan is to melt all of this metal down in an induction furnace using crucibles with a capacity of 1500 to 4000 Kg per load, expecting to process all of the material over a period of about ten years.

Approximately 98% of the uranium currently contaminating the metal will concentrate in the slag when it’s melted. This slag will be sealed in drums and eventually stored at the national nuclear waste site at Vaalputs in the Northern Cape.

According to Necsa the recycled metal will only contain about 1% of evenly distributed uranium once it’s passed through the smelter, making it clear for “release” onto the market. Not my kind of recycling, to be honest (mental note: check ingredients next time you buy a new frying pan).

The remaining 1% of uranium will be “available as off-gas” which will pass through a filtration system capable of removing more than 99.9% of it. The amount released into the atmosphere will be well below the allowable limit and “the environmental impact will therefore be insignificant”. So says Necsa.

The problems

At a public hearing, hosted by the NNR in Centurion last October, the Pelindaba Working Group’s Dominique Gilbert enumerated various criticisms, including the following:

- Waste incinerators are notorious health and environmental hazards, potentially generating toxic compounds and particulate matter that are difficult to confine.

- Necsa has contracted a controversial Swedish company called Studsvik to help with the design of the smelter, but Studsvik had a complaint of criminal negligence filed against it in 2007 when their bid for a similar smelter was scrapped in the US, allegedly for deliberately failing to follow regulations.

- The NNR does not have the technical or financial capacity to regulate a facility such as this.

- Radioactive smelter projects have a poor track record worldwide, with a number having been shut down as a result of public pressure and successful litigation.

- Experts have expressed serious concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the so-called HEPA filters which are to be used to remove uranium from the smelter off-gas.

- Necsa has refused to consider alternatives, like encapsulating the waste and storing it in a sealed building on site.

I for one don't like Necsa’s neat little plan for using taxpayers' money to invest in highly contentious and potentially dangerous technology for cleaning up a nasty mess that the vast majority of us would not have allowed ourselves to get into had we ever been given the choice. How about you?

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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