Keith Bryer’s tolerantly expressed defence of nuclear power (Business Report, October 29) is much welcomed, but a couple of his points deserve clarification and, of greater importance, consideration of South Africa’s politics and capabilities is needed as an addendum.
Bryer mentioned that professor James Lovelock, the originator and protagonist of Gaia theory, changed his mind about the desirability of nuclear power. Lovelock denies he ever changed his mind on this and, in fact, his first book about Gaia, published in 1979, was already advocating nuclear power.
Bryer also too easily brushed aside the challenge of storing long-lived radioactive waste, which eventually degrades to a safe level but needs several times the length of known history to reach that. Nuclear power generation on a global scale, presently inevitable, would make this challenge enormous. However, Lovelock had the ingenious idea of fencing off precious nature reserves with dangerously radioactive waste, or (and I love this) planting it strategically to block ruthless developers.
Bryer also ought to have mentioned that much of the public antinuclear fear and misunderstanding can be attributed to the media, which knows that Hiroshima and Fukushima-linked nuclear horror stories are useful for spicing-up dull reports.
What about nuclear in South Africa? First, let’s debunk the concept of Coal 3, which would kick in the teeth the goal of carbon dioxide reduction. Moreover, there doesn’t appear to be the funding or construction capacity to begin undertaking a third mega coal station before 2020, or later. While no official will admit it, the driver of the idea is enrichment of politically favoured owners of coal mines. Coal 3 is political kite-flying and should be dismissed as a prospect.
Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile power stations are under construction; Medupi is not likely to be fully operational for another three years, while Kusile is only scheduled to come online in 2018, which may be optimistic. But nuclear power has been conceptually approved by the government and so an early start should be prioritised, bearing in mind that between five and 10 years are required for construction even by an experienced nuclear contractor untroubled by anarchists of any stripe.
It is essential that the building of new nuclear power stations in South Africa must not be managed by Eskom, which no longer has the technical expertise that characterised the organisation 15 or more years ago. Nor does it have the project management capacity and independence to disregard interference by politicians and organised (and disorganised) labour.
A foreign supplier should be contracted to a turnkey contract. With care, the funding can be designed to come from a foreign investor. It is significant that Britain’s first new nuclear power station in a generation (Hinkley Point C) is to be a turnkey undertaking by the French firm EDF and largely financed by Chinese companies – an association that has already proved successful in China.
Many critics think the UK government has conceded over-generous terms for the investors, and hence the electricity price for consumers may become unduly high. But Britain is predicting (gambling on?) an enormous price increase in electricity generated from other sources within the construction period. The Brits, being financially hard-pressed, reasoned that giving the Chinese generous future profits is better than having to provide the costs up front; South Africa would argue likewise.
Attracting a foreign investor seems the obvious route for South Africa to take towards our first (of several) new nuclear power station. Let’s get on with it.
Polemic ignores truth of radioactive gases
Keith Bryer’s polemic (Business Report, October 29) does not correspond to the facts. He alleges it is “myth” that “nuclear power stations emit poisonous gases”. This is stunningly refuted by the annual reports from Koeberg and other atomic power stations, which list the radioactive gas emitted, along with liquid and solid radioactive emissions. Engineers state that if atomic reactors do not emit radioactive gas, most types will suffer “xenon poisoning”. The same refutation can be made of Bryer’s seven other claims.
Stripping bare Bryer’s atomic whitewash
I am surprised that you published Keith Bryer’s whitewashing of nuclear power in your pages (October 29). Fortunately, any reader can see through the whitewash.
I’ll deal with three of his eight myths:
Myth 1: “All nuclear radiation creates horrific burns and then kills people.”
He mentions radiation burns caused by nuclear bombs and says we have learned a lot since then – but does not say what. I know radioactive waste is dangerous to my health, burns or not. Look how nuclear plant workers dress to protect themselves.
Myth 2: “All radioactive materials take many thousands of years to degrade to a safe state. Some do, some do not,” he writes. It is the ones which do take thousands of years to degrade that worry us.
If I may quote a Reuters report, dated March 27, 2009 (Key facts on radioactive waste): “About 90 percent of waste has low levels of radioactivity, but the rest requires shielding and special disposal. It takes hundreds of thousands of years for spent nuclear fuel to become non-radioactive and its storage is becoming a crucial issue as dozens of new nuclear reactors look set to come online in coming decades.”
That 10 percent is a massive amount of waste, however much whitewash is applied. The Romans left us little but Latin and straight roads. Anybody still living on Earth in 100 000 years will have our nuclear waste to worry about. Imagine if future generations started fracking into a forgotten nuclear waste store, safely tucked underground? Imagine if tectonic activity – which caused the Fukushima tsunami – liberated the nuclear waste stored there?
Myth 3: “All nuclear power stations run the risk of blowing up like Chernobyl.”
He says this is “highly unlikely” and “Fukushima was not a nuclear accident”. Highly unlikely is not good enough. When you are operating a nuclear plant for decades and storing nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years “unlikely” becomes more likely.
Fukushima looked like a nuclear accident to most of us. We saw on television the polluted steam blowing into our atmosphere and only a couple of weeks ago polluted water was still streaming into our ocean. To us, with no degree in mathematics, it looked like: nuclear power station, bad location, natural disaster, “poor disaster management”, nuclear accident.
Photovoltaics, which Bryer mentions, must have more than the “chance” he gives them. The solar energy striking the Earth’s surface in 90 minutes is about equal to worldwide energy consumption in a year. (This is true. You can find it on the internet, complete with complicated mathematics.) Why is this opportunity being wasted in favour of risky nuclear power and polluting fossil fuels? Perhaps your staff member Ann Crotty, with her understanding of vested interests, could explain.
Neal Froneman, the chief executive of Sibanye Gold, seems to have faith in photovoltaics. He has warned Eskom that his company might find it cheaper to build a 10 megawatt solar power plant instead of buying expensive electricity from it. The mines have plenty of land and South Africa has plenty of sunshine, he points out. “It’s very viable and we’re doing a lot of work on it.” No whitewash there.
What do we do when coal deposits run out?
I refer to the article “Transnet to help juniors export coal” (Business Report, October 25).
While I am not qualified to comment on South Africa’s balance of payments and the influence that coal exports may or may not have on this, it appears the country is committing suicide in advance, so to speak.
There are schools of thought in geological circles that South Africa’s coal deposits will be severely limited, at the present rate of consumption, after 2020.
With the advent of new coal-fired power stations and Transnet chief executive Brian Molefe talking about an increased rate of coal export, 2020 is rushing towards us at an alarming speed. Surely the time has come to reduce and limit coal exports, not increase them? Would it not be prudent to stop coal exports altogether?
With the debate on the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity raging, the development of sustainable alternative forms out of sight over the horizon, and the government floundering on these issues, perhaps Molefe would explain what we do when the coal deposits are exhausted and South Africa has no more.
Hout Bay, Cape Town