Opinionista Chris Butters 7 January 2021

Ten compelling reasons to stay away from nuclear power

Proponents of nuclear power argue that it is safe, clean, infinite and the way of the future. They are wrong. Here are ten good reasons.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Jobs

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Time

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.

  1. 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.

  1. “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.

  1. 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?

Reducing consumption

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

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All Comments 4

  • A rather rambling and poorly researched article that trots out all sorts of arguments that are all over the place. It’s a vast topic, and poorly served by a laundry list. Perhaps a series of more focused articles with better research would be more useful? I wonder if the author is familiar with the concept of risk modelling to assess hazards, such as radiation?

  • Renewable energy is a great initiative to make our globe more sustainable. I agree that we cannot continue with heating this planet as we currently doing. We must find different ways to power this planet, we need more reliable power sources. But attacking nuclear energy I believe (my opinion) is not the way.

    I agree nuclear power plants as they are currently a bit of an aged technology. Solar and wind power plants prices are plummeting year on year, yet nuclear power plants seem to be rising in cost. I believe nuclear should be rethought.

    A lot of development has happened in the world of nuclear, thorium molten salt breeder reactor is a great example. Thorium is not fissile, does not produce plutonium (the reason I believe thorium reactors weren’t looked at in the cold war days). A thorium reactor can be refuelled with the dangerous spent nuclear fuel waste and give an answer to what are we going to do with that almost immortal waste. Countries like India with vast reserves of thorium can use this resource to industrialise themselves into a developed country. Thorium molten salt breeder reactors have disadvantages such as the corrosive nature of the fuel and I am not saying we should usher in a thorium energy age right now, but we must look at this technology in the future.
    Small modular nuclear power reactors are another nuclear option. The problem with nuclear power is its cost and scale. Now this the answer to try and solve that problem. This has the advantage like solar and wind power to enjoy the miracle of scale of economy and reduce their cost and allow wider access and power the globe.

    I am not against wind or solar, in fact I believe we should increase our wind and solar infrastructure globally. Wind energy has enjoyed advances where we can build larger turbines the size of the Eiffel tower, if not bigger and this will have and exponential increase in output, but the larger size . Solar has advanced lightyears and is still increasing at the same pace. The return in investment of nuclear compared to solar and wind is not yet there yet.
    But these renewable sources of solar and wind have their disadvantages. Wind only blows sometimes, and the sun only shines sometimes. We cannot demand the wind to blow harder when we need power to ramp up, nor ask the sun to shine brightest and the time when we need it to.
    This is where kicker plants come in, that ramp up energy production of wind and solar farms using natural gas to be burned and releasing more carbon into our heating atmosphere. Even storage solutions have not been completely figured out. Hydro storage or batteries are the go-to currently. They require more development, such as batteries. Lithium based batteries are used due to their low cost, but they have been developed for light weight and energy density. This is fine for cars, cell phones, laptops… but not so much for stationary battery storage facilities. They have issues with heat and can ignite or explode especially in hot environments where solar benefits the most from the heat. Lithium is a finite resource as well. Development in molten metal batteries, I hope, will be a solution to this energy storage problem.
    My real point I want to make is that all sources of energy has their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Heck one source of energy even can have multiple different methods with their own unique problems and solutions. Every source has its inherent hazards and risks. But we cannot say due to x and y this one is better in this situation thus this the other one must be eliminated entirely. I agree, if nuclear next to a major city in the worst-case scenario can render it inhabitable, maybe we should look at alternative sources. But I believe we will only solve the energy generation crisis heating the world by looking at all solutions, figuring out which solution works out best for that situation and then implementing it. Reducing our gaze and looking at only a couple of hand-picked solutions and ignoring other alternatives will not be in our or our kids’ best interests.
    I apologise for the long reply, I am also not an expert in this field, but I try to read up and inform myself. Thank you for your article and I hope you do not mind my inputs. I believe we should have open dialogs, so please if I made any mistakes or you have your opinion please share.
    Kind regards

  • The only observation which a very smart youngster (who turned 18 a few days ago – Greta Thunberg) would agree wholeheartedly with, is the immediate need to cut down on ‘consumption’ of all kinds. And … she has set some stringent personal demands in that regard. It is this vulgar greed to consume more and more and for corporate giants and their ‘lords’ to become mega-rich in the process, which is at the heart of our dilemma !

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