En­ergy op­tions – con­tro­ver­sial is­sues in the great na­tional power de­bate

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - JASON MAST

IT’S a ques­tion that’s been asked by politicians, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and or­di­nary cit­i­zens in re­cent months: Is nu­clear en­ergy the right an­swer, en­vi­ron­men­tally, for South Africa?

“The whole nu­clear thing is so politi­cised. If you’re for nu­clear, you’re sup­pos­edly for Zuma,” said Robert Lind­say, head of the depart­ment of nu­clear physics at the Univer­sity of the West­ern Cape.

Lind­say claims to be one of the few re­searchers in the coun­try who’s nei­ther for nor against a nu­clear pro­gramme in South Africa.

It’s a par­tic­u­larly press­ing ques­tion as US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has with­drawn from the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord, mak­ing the bur­den of ad­dress­ing cli­mate change heav­ier on the rest of the world.

Nu­clear power of­ten con­jures im­ages of melt­downs at Ch­er­nobyl, Three Mile Is­land, and, most re­cently, the Fukushima ac­ci­dent in Ja­pan that spilled large amounts of ra­di­a­tion into the ocean.

Anti-nu­clear ac­tivists point to these in­ci­dents as the ul­ti­mate risk, but also as flash­points to a larger prob­lem with en­ergy pro­duced from ra­di­a­tion: the ra­di­a­tion it­self.

For more than six decades, nu­clear re­ac­tors, which do not emit car­bon diox­ide or other green­house gases, have been the only form of nearly car­bon­free en­ergy that can pro­duce on a level with coal and oil. Much of the de­bate to­day cen­tres on whether, given the re­cent ad­vance­ments in wind and so­lar en­ergy, among other re­new­able sources, nu­clear en­ergy is still nec­es­sary.

“Why would you do that when you have much safer forms of en­ergy avail­able?” asked Liz Mc­daid, spokesper­son for the South African Faith Com­mu­ni­ties En­vi­ron­ment In­sti­tute, one of the two plain­tiffs in the law­suit that halted Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s nu­clear plan.

It’s a ques­tion of dan­ger and cost, Mc­daid said.

Some neu­tral or pro-nu­clear re­searchers dif­fer on the ac­tivists’ as­sess­ment of the dan­ger and rel­a­tive cost.

They also dis­agree on whether South Africa can ac­tu­ally be­come car­bon neu­tral with­out pur­su­ing nu­clear power.

When dis­cussing nu­clear power, ra­di­a­tion is among the first con­cerns.

“The en­tire chain of nu­clear pro­duc­tion is equally harm­ful,” said Muna Lakhani, vol­un­teer co-or­di­na­tor for Earth­life Africa, the other plain­tiff in the nu­clear law­suit.

“This is from ura­nium min­ing to fuel man­u­fac­ture, to ra­di­a­tion from re­ac­tor on a daily ba­sis and of course all the high-level and low-level nu­clear waste,” Lakhani said.

Lind­say, how­ever, sug­gests the daily ra­di­a­tion from a plant is “ab­so­lutely min­i­mal”.

“Just look at Koe­berg,” Lind­say said, “I’ve mea­sured ra­di­a­tion there, and the ra­di­a­tion it sends is ab­so­lutely min­i­mal. It’s not worth men­tion­ing.”

Nu­clear waste is an is­sue be­cause it lasts thou­sands of years and no one wants it stored near them, Lind­say added, but it is not ac­tu­ally par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous.

“Re­searchers know how to cheaply and safely bury it,” he said.

Ura­nium min­ing has long been a thorn in the side of those who ad­vo­cate nu­clear power as the path to car­bon­free en­ergy. The min­ing, un­like the re­ac­tors, is some­what car­bon in­ten­sive and comes with at­ten­dant risks.

There are ar­eas near the gold mines in Johannesburg – where ura­nium was also mined – where min­ing waste is still giv­ing off ra­di­a­tion and other toxic gases that con­trib­ute to silicosis, a lung dis­ease that com­monly af­fects min­ers and kills around 50 000 peo­ple an­nu­ally around the globe.

“It’s toxic and ra­dio-ac­tive and is af­fect­ing the 1.5 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants liv­ing around the dumps,” said David Fig, an en­vi­ron­men­tal so­ci­ol­o­gist and anti-nu­clear ac­tivist who has writ­ten on ura­nium min­ing.

But South Africa’s pro­posed nu­clear project might not pre­cip­i­tate any fur­ther ura­nium min­ing, Fig said. “Ura­nium is now in­cred­i­bly cheap as nu­clear has fallen out of favour glob­ally, and it won’t be cost-ef­fec­tive for min­ing com­pa­nies to mine it un­less the rest of the world starts build­ing nu­clear re­ac­tors again.”

At the mo­ment, Fig said, South Africa can pur­chase ura­nium stock­piles cheaply.

Lind­say pointed out that on any given night last year, South Africa was us­ing 34 gi­gawatts (34 bil­lion watts) of power, roughly 2% of which is wind­pro­duced. That’s a far stretch from a full re­new­able en­ergy econ­omy.

“That has to be scaled up by fac­tors of 50,” Lind­say said. “And then you have to hope the wind’s blow­ing.”

Wind would not in fact be the only source in any re­new­able en­ergy plan in South Africa, but it is the pri­mary re­new­able en­ergy source in all plans.

Mc­daid con­tends that South Africa can be­come car­bon­neu­tral pri­mar­ily by ramp­ing

On any given

But un­der the 2030 en­ergy tar­gets of South Africa’s cur­rent re­new­able plan, the Re­new­able En­ergy In­de­pen­dent Power Pro­ducer Pro­cure­ment Pro­gramme (REIPP), is well short of be­ing car­bon neu­tral. Green­house gas emit­ting coal would still ac­count for over 60% of the na­tion’s power.

The Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search – which de­clined to com­ment for this re­port, cit­ing the highly politi­cised na­ture of the de­bate – cre­ated a “2016 re-op­ti­mised plan” that by 2050 would phase out and elim­i­nate and have re­new­ables ac­count­ing for 89% of South Africa’s power. Wind, at 52%, would be South Africa’s high­est pro­ducer.

The CSIR’s re­port says this would save R90 bil­lion a year more than the Depart­ment of En­ergy’s pro­posal of hav­ing 39% nu­clear en­ergy – and 11% coal – by 2050.

A full car­bon-neu­tral econ­omy, how­ever, is al­most im­pos­si­ble with­out nu­clear en­ergy. So­lar pan­els and wind work well when it’s sunny or windy but un­til en­ergy stor­age be­comes cheaper, they can’t ef­fi­ciently sup­ply en­ergy on a calm night.

Then you need “baseload power” – coal, nu­clear and nat­u­ral gas.


Py­lons carry power from Koe­berg nu­clear power plant, near Cape Town.

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