Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 20 July 2015

With nuclear power you only get one shot, one chance to blow things up

There is enough evidence around the world that demonstrates the potential and actual dangers inherent in managing and operating nuclear plants. In South Africa the problem starts now, in the years running up to construction, during the construction process itself, in the day-to-day management and operation of a nuclear power, and in the unlikely event (one has to remain positive – against all odds) of a meltdown, heat decay, mechanical failure or human error, any or all of which can lead to death and destruction.

If everything goes according to plan, South Africa may have as many as eight nuclear reactors within the next two decades. It has been reported that Russia’s state atomic energy corporation will provide South Africa with up to eight nuclear reactors by 2023, in a partnership worth an estimated $50-billion.

The reported purchase suggests that the matter of nuclear power, as opposed to coal, hydroelectric power, shale gas or solar energy is settled, at least in terms of public debate. Also, it is, for now, unknown whether there has been any baksheesh in the agreement. At any rate, even if there has, we may never know. Placement of funds may already have taken place, layering may be a few months away, and by next year’s local election, any likely funds may well have been completely integrated.

Nonetheless, if the nuclear plants are built, the country opens itself up to an unprecedented, potentially devastating and horrific crisis. There is enough evidence around the world that demonstrates the potential and actual dangers inherent in managing and operating nuclear plants. In South Africa the problem starts now, in the years running up to construction, during the construction process itself, in the day-to-day management and operation of a nuclear power, and in the unlikely event (one has to remain positive – against all odds) of a meltdown, heat decay, mechanical failure or human error, any or all of which can lead to death and destruction. And then there is the clean-up process. Each step of the way is fraught with danger, and as the best developed examples show, the entire process tends to be shrouded in secrecy and obfuscation. In an industry that can be so destructive and toxic, secrecy can only compound the likely problems.

As it goes the government can barely accept responsibility for current crises in the postal service, electricity and water supply, and for chaotic government departments and public enterprises. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking responsibility for a nuclear disaster. An historical footnote may be needed: Nuclear power was first connected to an electricity power grid (in the Soviet Union) in 1954, almost 300 years after Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape. He had no role or say in the matter… Whatever happens next will be entire of our own doing.

The problem with running a nuclear power plant is that you only get one chance to blow it. One blow-up can change everything. The destruction and fall-out is vast in scale and time. This much we know from the two nuclear accidents freshest in the memory of most grown-ups: Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, in 1986, and Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. What the evidence in both cases has shown, is that there are serious problems that tend to arise even before the construction starts – most of which has to do with secrecy, maladministration and corruption.

For example, in France the clandestine nature of that country’s nuclear programme – early in the piece – kept all costs and operating performance data away from public scrutiny. One set of data from the last decades of the past century showed that there were large overruns and delays in the construction of France’s nuclear plants. Construction times stretched to almost six years, and the average cost of overruns were more than 200%. In some instances, construction of plants cost more than three times the projected costs.

Another problem South Africa faces, based on the abundance of evidence around tenders and special favours on the nexus of public and private sector, malfeasance and rent-seeking, cutting of corners and the siphoning of funds can be concealed in thickets of sub-contracting and secrecy legislation. It seems certain that any new nuclear plants may be run by the state. If management and operation of state enterprises in South Africa serve as a yardstick, we can expect disasters from which there is no easy comeback.

The management and operation of nuclear plants are intense and rigorous, with extreme attention to detail and dedication. All of this demands professionalism and commitment – conduct that has rarely been seen in public entities or utilities over the past 20 years. Managing and running the day-to-day workings of a nuclear power plant is different from running a coal-fired plant, or a bottling or manufacturing plant. With a nuclear power plant, you only get one shot, one chance to blow it up, beyond which the destruction and fallout will live with society for generations.

What became much clearer after the Fukushima accident is that corruption in the political system was replicated in the nuclear industry. There were, also, direct links between the industry and criminal syndicates, who benefited from subcontracting and lax labour relations. One especially insidious link that was uncovered by Reuters, (Special Report: Help wanted in Fukushima: Low pay, high risks and gangsters) was between Japan’s Yakuza crime syndicate, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – who ran the nuclear plant at Fukushima – and government agencies such as the ministry of health, labour and welfare. Tepco got away with their negligence for years because of the cosy ties between power companies and the regulators, bureaucrats and researchers that champion the industry – the “nuclear village”. Backed by industry champions, money and control of the media, Tepco cooked its radiation data over an extended period, and effectively covered any evidence of malfeasance. Along with a highly skilled, professional and dedicated work force, secrecy in the running of nuclear plants is a great threat.

Secrecy and the banning of ‘hostile’ media reports were some of the catalytic ingredients that led to the disaster at Chernobyl. Scientists had to rely only on official sources, and therefore lacked news and information, and reports on new knowledge, fresh ideas and developments in their field. Much like the South African government received warnings about the likely collapse of South Africa’s electricity supply in the late 1990s (and ignored them), there were Soviet scientists who produced rather prophetic reports. Notable was the report by a respected Soviet scientist, Dr Ivan Zhezherun, who warned of a potential explosion – decades before Chernobyl. Boris Paton, a respected Ukrainian scientist also warned Soviet officials of the potential fallout of a disaster at Chernobyl.

They were ignored. The lack of a free press, and of public interest groups not linked to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, made it impossible to have independent checks on the actions of policy-makers. The CPSU believed only its own stories. This was replicated in Japan where actors in nuclear villages – government officials, industry players and academics, smug in their support for nuclear power – control the flow of information.

Perhaps the biggest problem South Africa faces, with respect to the actual running of a nuclear plant is less in the actual lack of skills – they can be developed – than the lack of a deeply embedded work ethic that is shaped by thoroughness, commitment, and epistemic capacity. The trend set by the government, to employ people for every reason, other than requisite skills, educational qualifications, professionalism and dedication, makes this doubly dangerous. A new case of forged qualifications emerges from high offices in state agencies almost weekly. Just this past week, Prasa chief executive, Lucky Montana, was removed from his position, thoroughly obeisant to ‘leadership’, thanked the ANC for the position he held. Political appointments, and cronyism, corruption, in general, were key ingredients to disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The operation of nuclear facilities has to conform to fairly strict guidelines for persons working within complex systems that depend, for their functionality, on individual capabilities, limitations and attitudes. Silly sentimentalities and flimsy ideological solidarities are not assurances of excellence in running a nuclear plant.

Specific qualifications are required for particular positions. Employees also have to be screened and tested frequently for emotional stability. This is not a conspiracy or a plot, and there is no need to block the labour courts with malicious or spurious cases. Besides being a drain on state resources, it contributes to an increase in the judicialisation of politics in the country.

The high stress that comes with working in a nuclear facility takes a high toll on employees. Nuclear power plants are run continuously, and employees have to work in shifts, with strict shift duration and rotation, with significant emphasis on alertness and efficiency. They are, therefore, highly rewarded. Managers have to be strict and must, themselves, be highly organised to ensure the safety of a nuclear plant. We have to start facing the truth of our competences and skills. Front line service delivery is in a mess, because of a lack of dedicated skills and poor work ethics. Technical skills were stripped away from towns and municipalities, simply because the most skilled people were of ‘the old regime’.

There is an under-defined, and under-developed trend in South Africa to denounce everything that comes from Europe, as part of colonial exploitation, empire building, dominance and, well, not part of an ‘African epistemology’ – whatever that may mean. The decision to build nuclear power plants in South Africa, is entirely our own. Whatever happens between now and when electricity comes on stream, is entirely of our own doing. Perhaps more accurately, it is not clear whether the direct beneficiaries of the Russian deal are the ANC, or the people of South Africa. They rarely do what’s right for the country. DM

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