Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and the chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants. Photo: File
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and the chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants. Photo: File

Tech Track: Don't fall for fake nuclear science hype

By Opinion Time of article published Nov 30, 2020

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IF SOMEONE wants advice on a complex legal opinion, they usually don't rely on the advice of a baker.

A person about to undergo open-heart surgery usually likes to get the opinion of a heart surgeon, or at least of some other medical doctor, not the grocer.

But it continues to surprise me to what degree the public pay attention to advanced scientific opinions expressed by people who have no science training.

Recently there was another slight earth tremor in Cape Town. Anti-nuclear activist groups were promptly quoted in the media as saying that this could be dangerous for Koeberg nuclear power station, and that families should be worried. One of the groups is a religious group.

Ask yourself why the Koeberg staff were not grabbing their families and running for the hills.

Any risk to a nuclear power station must be taken seriously, but the authorities do not seem to feel that there is any cause for concern for Koeberg in the light of the most recent Cape tremor, which registered 3.5 on the Richter Scale.

Sadly, suggestions that Koeberg nuclear power station was in any danger from the minor earth tremor, which struck the Cape Town area are just an attempt to instil an anti-nuclear fear in the minds of local residents.

Let us consider the Richter Scale for a moment. It was developed in 1935 by Carl Richter, and since then a couple of other improved scales have been developed, but the media love the word "Richter" so it sticks.

The Richter Scale is logarithmic, which means that each number is 10 times greater than the previous one. So a Richter 4 is 10 times larger than a Richter 3.

There are about 100 000 Richter 3 events globally annually, and in earthquake areas such an event hardly raises an eyebrow.

By Earth movement standards a Richter reading of 3.5 is low. Koeberg was designed to withstand an earthquake of 7.5 on the Richter Scale, which is substantial. Remember that due to the way in which the Richter Scale works, a reading of 7.0 is thousands of times larger than a reading of 3.0. There are about 100 000 Richter 3 events globally each year, and in earthquake areas such an event hardly raises an eyebrow.

Koeberg was one of the first reactors in the world to have a sophisticated anti-earthquake system designed into it, by decision of South African nuclear engineers at the time.

There are about a dozen to two dozen Richter 7-size events worldwide each year.

The designers of Koeberg knew that, and the fellows who run Koeberg now know that too.

Koeberg was built to an anti-earthquake specification far above any event that could ever be realistically imagined to happen in the Cape area.

The reactors have a special earth mixture base about 5 metres thick, laid directly on to the bedrock. Then there is an additional 3 metres of high-strength concrete laid on that. On top of that there is a special anti-earthquake system of Bronze-Beryllium plates, which can move sideways and absorb any lateral movement.

The movement which can be tolerated is thousands of times greater than that which the Cape Town area could conceivably experience.

Another point is that Koeberg is internationally recognised as one of the best-run nuclear plants in the world, and it has extremely competent staff. The slightest incident of any sort is investigated in great depth by the Koeberg specialists. Furthermore, regular drills to address any problematic scenario are practised and revised regularlyThe anti-nuke groups referring to Fukushima are disinformation tactics. Not one single person was killed or injured by nuclear radiation at Fukushima. Suggestions of any mass evacuation of Cape Town being required really are scare stories in the extreme.

Koeberg and its highly competent professional staff should be a source of great pride to the people of Cape Town. Those professionals know exactly what are doing, every minute of the day.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and the chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants

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