Of all sources of electricity, nuclear is the safest, cleanest and cheapest. These are all easily provable assertions, yet, in the open forum of public debate about nuclear power, issues such as provable claims count for little.
An unfortunate development in international public debate has been the reality that the parties that make the most dramatic and vivid public pronouncements are most likely to gain public attention. This is fuelled by the fact that international media technology, including television, makes possible vivid and dramatic broadcasts to all corners of the planet in a matter of moments.
Consider as an illustration the now extremely well-known Fukushima event in 2011, which resulted from the giant tsunami that struck Japan. How many members of the public worldwide know that the radiation-induced death toll at Fukushima was zero? There were also zero human injuries from nuclear radiation and no radiation damage to private property.
A subsequent United Nations investigation into potential human genetic harm resulting from the incident showed that there was unlikely to be any. Also take note that there are no evident negative human genetic defects at either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, even though both cities were destroyed by nuclear weapons in 1945.
But Fukushima is universally referred to as a major nuclear disaster. It was not – it was a conventional tsunami disaster, as was the destruction of the airport and the oil refinery as the wall of water swept through them.
Let us face it: nuclear technology was brought to world attention as a result of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts. In public relations terminology, a product launch could hardly have had a worse start. This was all compounded by the postwar continued nuclear weapons testing that gave rise to an ‘antinuclear lobby’ committed to stopping nuclear weapons development and testing.
There was merit in that antinuclear weapons movement, and the testing eventually stopped, save for a few nations that fall outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which limits the development of nuclear weapons. South Africa is a signatory to this treaty. But what has happened is that the antinuclear weapons psychology, over time, morphed into a general antinuclear power sentiment. One has to examine the motivation. Those in the antinuclear movement, for the most part, are now also the same people who advocate “saving the planet” from real or imaginary abuses of mankind.
A bit of deep examination of the motives shows that those expressing this sentiment do not actually want cheap, readily available electricity because they argue that cheap electricity will stimulate major economic growth which, in turn, will lead to more planetary degradation. This fear produces a mental attitude in certain sectors that nuclear power must be stopped at all costs, even if it means distorting the truth and using dishonest tactics. This is the reason why Fukushima is always projected by them as a major nuclear accident, with as-yet-unknown consequences. The motivation is to stimulate public fear, and certainly not to arrive at the truth.
What happens is that nuclear scientists and engineers respond in the professional manner in which they are trained internationally. They respond with cold, hard facts and zero public emotion. This means that the nuclear professionals are guaranteed to lose the public debate if they continue with this approach.
In South Africa, nuclear power is the cheapest electricity by far. France produces three-quarters of its electricity by means of nuclear and has an electricity price far cheaper than that of Germany, which launched itself into a major wind and solar programme that produces endless problems and far more carbon dioxide than France. All this makes quite a joke of the original German intent.
Nuclear power is cheap because the uranium price is so low and the amount required is so predicable for a century. By comparison, the long-term availability and price of fossil fuels is not at all certain. An even more important factor is the extremely low volume of uranium fuel required, which means that, in principle, decades’ worth of nuclear fuel could be stored on site, if need be. In addition, countries with no fossil fuels of their own can invest in nuclear power, knowing that, with even a small stockpile of nuclear fuel, they have control over their electricity supply. They also have a large measure of security with respect to being manipulated by means of fuel price changes. This is in contrast to what we have seen so often in the case of the manipulation of the international oil price.
But nuclear power plants have a higher initial capital cost of construction, compared with traditional fossil fuel plants, and this is a psychological hump that the antinuclear lobbyists love to use as ‘proof’ that nuclear will turn out to be expensive.
Let us, for a moment, contemplate another public score which the antinuclear lobby loves so much – nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is treated so professionally and there is so little of it that it is of no concern whatsoever if handled in accordance with professional standards. But a fairy-tale fear of ‘nuclear waste’ is conjured up in the minds of the public by the antinuclear activists. South African nuclear waste is handled in the most professional manner and we have had a world-class nuclear waste facility operating in the Northern Cape for over 30 years.
The very few nuclear power accidents that have occurred have, contrary to the panic-press projections, shown that, in the real world, nuclear power is far safer than was at first thought. But the nuclear professionals shoot themselves in the foot – actually, in both feet – when they react to incidents like Fukushima by immediately telling the world that, as a result of the Fukushima incident, immediate increases in safety measures will be introduced into nuclear plants worldwide. Imagine the resulting public opinion. Instead, the nuclear fraternity should have announced that, owing to the excellent safety result that was finally produced from the out-of-date Fukushima reactor incident, even though it had been struck by the largest tsunami on record in Japan and the incident was compounded by some bad management decisions, not a single human or animal was killed or injured by nuclear radiation. As a result, nuclear safety protocols can now be relaxed in the interest of continued price reduction for consumers. Further, the public should take note that modern nuclear power plants are not built at all like the old Fukushima plants and that comparing Fukushima with a modern nuclear plant is like comparing a 1960s aeroplane with a super modern aircraft – chalk and cheese.
Without doubt, nuclear power is the future of the planet. In South Africa, a large nuclear power programme is under way to expand the existing nuclear electricity contribution from Koeberg by an additional 9 600 MW. Many other African countries are lining up to adopt nuclear power, as they realise that it is their only reasonable option for dramatic economic growth. Many African countries are locked into a hydroelectricity economy, which means that, if a severe drought strikes, which is not uncommon on the continent, a country can lose half its national electricity supply.
Nuclear professionals have to change the attitude of the public, which, in turn, affects the attitude of political decision-makers, to enable the inevitable world nuclear power progression to move at optimum speed.
But the professional nuclear approach has to adapt. The modern media system demands it. Academic university seminars will not do it – TV talk shows will, with nuclear professionals trained and prepared to aggressively counter the tsunami of carefully fabricated antinuclear propaganda.