The South African government seems intent on pushing through its plans to build a fleet of new nuclear power stations regardless of mounting public criticism and opposition. The most recent sign that nukes remain a firm national policy target was the publication of a document spelling out that “9 600 megawatts (MW) should be procured to be generated from nuclear energy”, which appeared in the Government Gazette a few days before Christmas.
Alas, atomic energy remains a poor option for South Africa for a number of compelling reasons. Here are some of them in no particular order:
1. It’s too expensive
The nuclear industry involves prohibitively high capital costs, for example for constructing new reactor facilities. The government’s current procurement plan is estimated to cost more than a trillion rand. Given our nose-diving currency and past experiences from other countries who have embarked on new nuclear build projects, this already humongous figure is likely to turn out to be a severe underestimate.
Atomic energy operators have historically been recipients of large government subsidies. The technology is ‘mature’ and unlikely to see future drops in costs. Renewable energy alternatives, by contrast, are constantly becoming more affordable. Nuclear fission is not a renewable source of energy. The world’s uranium reserves are limited and will become increasingly scarce and expensive.
2. It’s too dangerous
The consequences of the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima are stark reminders of the safety risks nuclear power plants represent. There is no guarantee that similar or worse accidents will not happen in the future.
In addition, the nuclear energy industry has long-standing ties to the atomic weapons business. South Africa’s past experience in this regard remains a particularly relevant example. Proliferation of nuclear arms continues to be a global problem, specifically in countries that have an active nuclear energy programme. Why else would Iran’s plans for atomic power have been such a hot geopolitical issue for so long?
At various points along its entire value chain, from enrichment to power generation, the nuclear energy industry remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
3. It’s too secretive
Because of safety and security concerns, generating nuclear energy is undemocratic by definition and requires tight, centralised and secretive state and corporate control. The tender and procurement process for South Africa’s proposed new nuclear programme has been anything but transparent and open to public scrutiny. In this environment, opportunities for shady back-room dealings, financial ‘incentives’ to strategically positioned individuals and outright bribery abound. Some of us have not yet forgotten the arms deal shenanigans.
4. It’s too dirty
Nuclear power stations generate high-level waste that stays dangerously radioactive for many thousands of years and for which no safe, long-term storage solution has yet been found anywhere in the world. All of the high-level waste produced at Koeberg over the years, for instance, remains in storage at the power plant itself.
Mining and processing uranium comes with very serious health risks for those involved as well as neighbouring communities, while also producing mountains of radioactive tailings and large quantities of contaminated liquids which represent major environmental threats.
5. It’s too slow
Government claims that reducing carbon emissions is a major reason for its plans to go nuclear. But building new nuclear power plants will take too long – decades – at a time when we desperately need clean, low-carbon energy to effectively counteract global warming. Renewable energy technologies can provide this much more speedily.
6. It’s outdated
Producing electricity by nuclear fission represents outdated 20th century technology. Investing time and money – and lots of both – in this dinosaur industry comes with significant and damaging opportunity costs that undermine our ability to make progress with real solutions. The future of electricity generation is renewable.
7. The environmental impact assessment is flawed
In its submission to GIBB Consultants, the firm facilitating the environmental impact assessment process for South Africa’s proposed new nuclear build programme, the anti-nuclear Koeberg Alert Alliance spells out some of the more glaring problems with the process (full disclosure: I’m a member of this organisation and contributed to the submission). Among other things, the document highlights concerns about the lack of consideration given to the earthquake risk at the Koeberg site, a misrepresentation of South Africa’s projected future electricity demand, and criticisms about the veracity of some of the specialists scientific studies that form part of the draft environmental impact report, which is described as “incomplete”, “biased” and “inadequate”.
8. We have better alternatives
Renewable sources of energy, especially solar and wind power, are capable of providing cheap, clean and safe electricity much more quickly than newly build nuclear reactors would.
The claim that we need atomic energy as part of a mix of power sources is fallacious. A number of studies have shown that renewables have the potential to provide most if not all of our electricity needs.
Nuclear power is redundant in the 21st century.