Anti-nuke campaigners never let facts intrude on a good tale

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Ever since the Nazis proved it, it has been an axiom of propagandists that it does not matter what you say as long as you say it loudly and often. Follow this simple rule and whatever you claim will be believed.

It helps if there is a scintilla of fact in the claim. It is better still if it plays on ignorance and fear.

But, rational, provable facts are boring. No one will listen. Cynical journalists have long said, “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”. Anti-nuclear power activists unfortunately often follow the same mantra.

These are the green objections to nuclear power: used nuclear fuel emits dangerous radiation for thousands, if not millions of years; nuclear facilities leak dangerous radiation; nuclear power stations are vulnerable to terrorist attack; nuclear power stations are potential bombs; they produce bomb material that could be stolen. There are other more esoteric objections but these are the main ones.

A visit to the Vaalputs nuclear waste disposal site in Namaqualand, 600km north of Cape Town, blows a hole in every one of these claims. (Other objections made to Vaalputs specifically are that it is vulnerable to earthquakes, that it could poison groundwater and that people living nearby are dangerously exposed to radiation).

The Vaalputs-specific allegations are as spurious as the others are. Cue howls of horror from extreme environmentalists and the usual suspects. Those with open minds, read on.

Not all radiation is dangerous to health. Nuclear waste, such as in spent fuel rods, is acutely dangerous to humans but the good news is that the radiation continues to decrease with time on a scale known as the half-life. If, for example, a half-life is a year then after one year half of the radiation is gone, after another year half of the rest, and so on.

Another general rule is that the more dangerous a radioactive substance is for people the faster it dissipates its radiation. That is precisely why it’s dangerous, because it is spewing out its radiation so fast. Material such as uranium is radioactive for thousands of years but it is so mild that you can sit on an unused uranium fuel rod and eat your lunch in complete safety.

Spent fuel from Koeberg is very radioactive because the uranium has been converted into other atoms. It is deadly, but they keep it under water for 10 years or more after which it has lost 95 percent of its radioactivity.

Other good news is that the radioactive stuff, like the spent fuel rods, is so small in volume that a year’s worth from Koeberg will fit in a small truck. It is easily contained and cared for. Koeberg does not leak dangerous radiation.

And yes, spent nuclear fuel remains radioactive for hundreds of years measured in half-lives, which can provide spooky figures such as a half-life of 100 000 years for some nuclear material. The anti-nuclear lobby makes much of this. It guarantees great headlines.

I was at Vaalputs when a load of radioactive waste arrived and was 25m from it when it was unloaded. It was low-level waste, such as gloves, shoes, paper towels, swabs, and anything that had been in contact with any radioactive material.

From their arrival at Vaalputs, from Koeberg or Pelindaba, the low-level nuclear waste containers emit radiation not much higher than that which comes from granite outcrops, such as the one above Paarl in the Cape. Sometimes it is even lower than that.

The idea that terrorists could steal dangerous weapons-grade spent nuclear fuel to make bombs is another scary allegation made by the anti-nuclear lobby.

First, the really high-level waste, like spent fuel rods, is not stored at Vaalputs, it is still on site at Koeberg pending a government decision on its final resting place.

Have you seen the size of a spent fuel rod? It would take many terrorists (each built like Arnold Schwarzenegger and dressed head-to-toe in anti-radiation gear) to shoulder just one.

Getting the rod off the premises would be difficult. It would be so radioactive that it would have to be carried in a thick steel or lead container much bigger than itself. Loading it on to a large truck would require a co-ordinated team – and a crane.

Assuming terrorists managed this, it would take so long that the police would be waiting for them.

As for radiation leaks from Vaalputs, one has to see what form the waste is in and how it is treaed before making claims that it is dangerous.

The geology, the depth of the closest aquifer, the nearest human habitation, the monitoring systems in place and the levels of radiation that might be emitted have to be considered as well.

Very low-level waste, such as work clothes, gloves, boots and mops, is enclosed in steel drums. Materials that are slightly more radioactive are solidified and encased in steel and concrete 35cm thick, each cask weighing five tons.

These drums are buried on essentially waterproof red clay. The trenches are 8m deep and covered with 3m of clay. Beneath the red clay are 5m of white clay and below that is granite.

In the unlikely event that water gets into the trenches, which are covered with “waterproof” clay when full, it would take 256 000 years to reach the 13 000-year-old aquifer, which tests have shown is undrinkable and useless for irrigation.

It would take 66 700 years to reach the nearest borehole. All this assumes water could get through all the clay. By the way all the buried waste at Vaalputs is solid.

It seldom rains heavily in the area. The site is 70km from the nearest hamlet and 117km from the nearest town. The closest farm is 5km away. The population density of the area is one person for every square kilometre. Radiation levels around Vaalputs are less than the natural radiation in Cape Town.

Earthquakes are not a factor either. If by some fluke there was one big enough to rupture the drums, Cape Town itself would disintegrate, and the escape of low-level radiation would not even register as an emergency. There have been quakes in Namaqualand, but none strong enough to shake the Vaalputs offices. The most recent quake had an epicentre 50km away.

As for the racist suggestion that people other than white or historically disadvantaged South Africans (to be politically correct) are incapable of running a safe nuclear disposal facility – this can be dismissed with contempt.

Such a situation has been the case for more than a decade. Vaalputs runs with Teutonic efficiency and within a solid safety culture that is regularly audited.

That all the above facts have received scant public attention and minuscule publicity is extraordinary, considering the scary headlines that seem to accompany all nuclear stories. Or perhaps it is not so extraordinary. Only a handful of journalists have made the trek to this remote part of Namaqualand to check on the alarmism of the anti-nuclear lobby.

Some half-dozen anti-nuclear activists once arrived unannounced. No one recalls how many. They were let in and given the tour. None of them later fell ill as a result.

No wonder the nuclear facts are never allowed to get in the way of a good story. No wonder green anti-nuclear claims are hardly ever challenged. No wonder the public is left ignorant and scared.


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