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Oct 08, 2010

Concerns about a nuclear-powered South Africa

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While Energy Minister Dipuo Peters has said that a fleet of six nuclear power stations is on the cards for South Africa, local umbrella group Coalition Against Nuclear Energy (Cane) believes that there are many unanswered questions pertaining to the use of nuclear energy as an answer to South Africa’s electricity crisis.

Cane comprises community organisations, residents asso- ciations, nongovernmental organisations, academics, professionals, unionists, environmentalists and ordinary citizens, most of whom are concerned about the “unnecessary and heavily subsidised costs, nuclear safety and the unresolved problem of long-term spent fuel storage”.

Cane’s Christine Garbett says: “A mix of renewable energy and pumped storage is equal to nuclear in supplying the country’s baseload energy, but has the advantage of about seven times more sustainable jobs and all the advantages of a low-carbon economy.”

Member of the Cane organisation the Pelindaba Working Group spokesperson Dominique Gilbert says that alternative energy sources, like concentrating solar power, are still expensive, compared with government’s current estimates for the construction of nuclear power plants, but it has failed to include the cost of aspects such as State subsidies, the disposal of nuclear waste, insurance liability, and externalities that include health risk and worker compensation, into the overall expense of generating nuclear power.

Gilbert explains that she believes that there is increasing proof of nuclear energy being economically unviable and having health implications. “The solution to South Africa’s energy crisis is decentralised power, where regions are able to establish their own renew- able-energy plants that are suitable to their terrain and conditions. This will not only create local jobs, but will also allow excess power to be fed into the grid.”

Nongovernmental environmental organisation Greenpeace points out that uranium mining is a highly intensive process, as uranium must be mined, milled, converted, enriched, converted again and then manufactured into fuel.

Nonprofit environmental organisation Earthlife Africa’s Judith Taylor explains that employees of uranium mines are also putting their health at risk, as they are exposed to radiation.

A 1999 report by Mail & Guardian says that an inspection carried out by the Council for Nuclear Safety (CNS) in May to August 1998 showed that more than 1 000 mine workers in the Free State were exposed to a yearly radiation dose five times higher than permissible.

In 1994, the CNS reported that 9 600 gold-mine workers were exposed to radioactive dust and gas clouds in the workplace that ranged between 20 millisievert (mSv) and 50 mSv each year.

However, the World Nuclear Association says: “The safety record of the uranium-mining industry is good. Radiation dose records compiled by mining companies under the scrutiny of regulatory authorities have shown consistently that mining company employees are not exposed to radiation doses in excess of the limits. The maximum dose received by mine- workers is about half of the 20-mSv/y limit and the average is about one-tenth of it.”

When a nuclear power station is ope- rational, it emits relatively little carbon dioxide. However, Gilbert believes that the nuclear industry fails to mention the carcinogens, such as caesium, strontium, and tritium, which are emitted by nuclear plants.

“The nuclear industry in South Africa is unsure about how long it will have to manage nuclear waste. We have already had leaks at South Africa’s main nuclear research centre Pelindaba, near the Hartbeespoort dam, in Gauteng, and at Africa’s only nuclear power station, Koeberg, 30 km north of Cape Town,” adds Gilbert.

Meanwhile, a News24 report on September 20, stated that 91 Eskom workers were contaminated with a small amount of radiation while performing maintenance work at Koeberg.

Eskom spokesperson Karen de Villiers said that, during maintenance on Koeberg Unit One, 91 workers tested positive for cobalt 58 as they left the site on September 12. It is believed that they were contaminated by airborne radiation, possibly from dust particles.

Gilbert explains that epidemiological studies have yet to be implemented to determine the effect of nuclear plants on surrounding populations.

Edited by: Brindaveni Naidoo
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