Energy options – controversial issues in the great national power debate
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It’s a particularly pressing question as US President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, making the burden of addressing climate change heavier on the rest of the world.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.