Public fears of nuclear waste can be put to rest. In most industries professional guidelines exist says the writer. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
JOHANNESBURG - Public fears of nuclear waste can be put to rest. In most industries professional guidelines exist.

For example, engineers do not put cooking oil in the gearbox of an industrial machine. There are professional routines and guidelines for handling gearbox oil, plus a multitude of other procedures.

Professional protocol certainly applies to the concept of nuclear waste. Certain nuclear “stuff” is radioactive. It can possibly produce dangerous nuclear radiation. So we must ask; what is nuclear radiation? Atoms, simplistically speaking, have a nucleus made up of a “bunch of little balls” all “glued together” by what is known as nuclear binding energy.

Imagine gluing a number of golf balls together to make a ball. When it is nice and round, if you add one or two more they will stick out of the ball like Mickey Mouse ears and will not fit in neatly. In a real atom if one or two of these “projecting balls” breaks away and shoots out, then that is nuclear radiation. What you have is a nuclear particle, which comes out of the atom’s nucleus and it moves really fast, like a microscopic bullet.

This type of radioactive effect is around us all the time. This is known as “background radiation”.

Granite kitchen tops, which are so popular in kitchens, are mildly radioactive, but enough to show clearly on a Geiger Counter. Bananas are also radioactive, but no problem, none of this is of the least danger to people.

In a nuclear reactor, when uranium fuel goes into the reactor, it is very mildly radioactive, something like granite tops. But then it spends a couple of years inside the reactor, during which time many of the uranium atoms split and turn into other atoms, so releasing vast amounts of energy.

These other atoms are highly radioactive and spew out very many particles from their nuclei, as they reform into a least-energy shape, something like a ball. They spit and cough nuclear particles until they are comfortable.

This process can take a few seconds or can take thousands of years, depending on which atoms we are talking about. So when the nuclear fuel assembly, known as a “fuel element”, is taken out of the reactor as “spent fuel” it is exceedingly dangerous for a human to go anywhere near it.

Professional nuclear people know exactly what they are doing in handling such spent fuel. There are very strict processes and procedures laid down, which are internationally recognised, which South Africa abides by.

During the normal operation of a nuclear reactor, no “nuclear effluent” comes out. This is a popular public misconception. When the spent fuel comes out of a reactor it is incredibly valuable. It is worth far more than gold and is carefully stored for potential use in the future. Such storage is governed strictly by domestic legislation and international nuclear treaties.

The spent nuclear fuel is known as High-Level Waste. Low-Level Waste consists of things like paper towels and cotton wool. which workers inside a nuclear plant have used to wipe anything which may have come into contact with anything radioactive. The LLW includes lab coats and gloves which were worn inside a designated area.

All of this is packed into specially marked drums and transported to the Northern Cape where it is buried in South Africa’s vast nuclear waste repository known as Vaalputs.

Every drum is numbered and stored so it can be retrieved at any time.

Nothing is “dumped”. There is no such concept as the "dumping of nuclear waste". Public fear of nuclear waste is thus misguided.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and the chief executive of Nuclear Africa.