The South African government recently released an invitation for comments on its proposal to instal 2.5 gigawatts of new nuclear power. There are at least 10 compelling reasons not to – a few of which you may not have thought of before. Described briefly below, they are arranged in what I consider to be a rough order of importance.
- The cost
Quite simply, nuclear energy is not the most economical option. Nuclear is now more expensive than renewable energies such as wind and, in many cases, solar. It is also far more expensive than many options for saving energy, which would necessitate fewer power stations, such as more efficient cars, industries, insulated buildings, etc. And renewables are becoming cheaper every year.
- The risks: Accidents and corruption
All risk analysis considers two factors: the likelihood of possible accidents, and the consequences of such accidents. If a coal-fired power plant has a major accident, there are likely to be a few deaths of staff, a huge fire and local pollution around the power plant. The likelihood of risks at a nuclear plant may be less, due to triple safety systems, but the possible consequences are colossal.
If a nuclear power station – such as Koeberg – blows up, we might have to abandon the City of Cape Town for 200 years. Nuclear plants can’t be too far from urban centres due to the high cost of transmitting power over long distances. So, even if better sited, there is low risk, maybe, but unimaginable consequences, as well as long-term and, in the case of radiation, invisible ones.
At least equally important, however, is the risk of mismanagement and corruption. Nuclear is simply out of the question as a safe option in a state characterised by any degree of dodgy tendering and procurement, corrupt construction, or incompetent leadership and operation. We have seen enough issues within Eskom to say that this is a major and real concern — incompetent design checks, cheating on materials, and so on. Even just faulty welding in constructing a coal-fired power station – which we have heard about recently – is simply not an option in the case of a nuclear reactor. Cost is basic common sense, but the current South African governance context is perhaps the strongest single argument against the nuclear option.
Constructing a nuclear power station creates a lot of jobs, but only for a few years. It has long been established that renewables, as well as energy efficiency measures, create far more jobs on a long-term or permanent basis. They also create jobs which are spread out regionally, as opposed to a huge project at just one location. One example: making homes and buildings more energy efficient requires thousands of jobs, spread all over the country and, in addition, these are conventional jobs for building trades, including for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.
- Nuclear waste
Nuclear energy results in hundreds of tons of incredibly hazardous waste, which our descendants will have to police for thousands of years after our time. This is simply irresponsible to the human race (and to the environment). After more than 50 years, almost no “permanent” safe storage facilities for nuclear waste have ever been created. We don’t need to talk about “nuclear fear”; it’s just a disgusting thing to leave to our children.
- Big business — democracy
The interests behind nuclear include huge multinationals – and powers such as the SA and the Chinese state. In my view, this huge scale represents a concentration of power, financial leverage, control and political influence which, in essence, tends to be anti-democratic.
- Nuclear proliferation
The risk of nuclear material getting into the hands of violent states or terror organisations is considerable. We have already seen dissidents being poisoned with polonium, probably with the backing of the Russian state. And North Korea making noises about nuclear bombs? How great is this threat? Even in light of strict international controls, this is still a powerful threat.
A nuclear power station takes many years — often more than 10 — to plan, approve and then build. Wind and solar facilities are already on the market and can be installed far more quickly. We also know from bitter experience that such megaprojects often experience additional years of delay (and staggering cost overruns). Our energy situation needs quicker solutions.
Hence, it would take decades — time we don’t have — for nuclear to become the major world energy source. Even longer in the poor countries, which are in most need. And that delay will also enable the “dirty energy” guys, the oil, coal and gas multinationals, to carry on wrecking the planet and making billions for a few more decades.
- The resource
Nuclear energy is based on uranium. But uranium, like coal, gas and oil, is a limited resource; there’s only enough for a few decades, perhaps for 100 years. So why not go straight to the renewables, which are here forever?
Let us add that various newer forms of biomass energy can also become a major source of energy. There is a huge emerging industry of plant-based materials, including bioplastics, already used for many motor vehicle parts, textiles and consumer goods; as well as for renewable bioenergy. In many countries, very productive plants can be grown as “energy crops” — without competing with agriculture, as the US ethanol industry unfortunately did. One might also recall that South African John Fry was a world pioneer of biogas in the 1950s. Much of Brazil’s “petrol” is produced from waste from the sugar plantations. Bioenergy is thus also a new potential source of income for farmers and rural areas.
- “Renewables aren’t reliable enough”
This is a common false argument in favour of nuclear power. For sure, the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. But that has long been recognised as a minor problem. If the energy system as a whole contains both wind, solar, hydropower, biomass and some other option such as gas (or even, for some more years, a little coal) – then the energy system as a whole is diverse and robust all year round.
We might remember that the wind blows mainly in winter, when we need the power most, and that we enjoy far more sunshine hours than many other countries that are “going solar”. The key point is that any energy system needs a certain amount of “base-load” power for times when there is neither wind nor sun, and if the dams are nearly empty too. This is where fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil are so useful because we can burn them when needed to produce power. And quickly, if there is a sudden surge in demand. But nuclear, on the other hand, is not very flexible; it takes 10 to 14 days to close down a nuclear reactor or fire it up to maximum output.
Other arguments against renewables
Even after all these years, the nuclear lobby continues to spread fake arguments. For example:
- That renewables take up much more land. Yes, they do, but South Africa has enormous areas of unproductive land. And, as in Spain, wind turbines can be installed on farming land, giving an extra income to farmers but with farming going on all around them;
- That wind turbines kill birds. Yes, they do — but far fewer than high-voltage power lines. In-depth conservation studies, for example at the large wind farm at Smøla, Norway, show that with the study of bird movements and careful placing, most bird collisions can be avoided; and
- That the payback times for wind and solar are too long. Many studies of lifetime costs, net energy analysis and life cycle assessments have refuted those claims.
As for “clean fossil fuels”, it’s fiction: coal is never clean, carbon capture and storage, as well as oil sands and fracking, are very expensive and environmentally damaging.
- Climate emissions
The low climate emissions from nuclear power are often cited as a reason in its favour. Yes, the emissions of climate gases such as carbon dioxide are low. But so are those of the renewables. Even cleaner are energy-efficiency measures. So why make a nuclear pact with the devil in order to reduce the carbon emissions?
A final point that must be made, is that the way out of the energy crisis is not, and can never be, endless continued growth in energy supply, or in resource use generally. All state-of-the-art research and policies are now turning towards the challenge of reducing our consumption; of meat, petrol, electrical gadgets, air miles and consumer goods. We know that with today’s solutions we can have exactly the same standard of living, the same life quality, with just a quarter of the energy. That means no need for more power stations — and certainly not nuclear.
Hence, energy authorities are starting to turn their focus far more towards ways of reducing our consumption of energy. And this path, by the way, is in many cases free. DM