Nuclear is the future for Africa

27th April 2012 By: Kelvin Kemm

High-level nuclear waste is not dangerous if the material is handled professionally. Hand grenades and dynamite are not dangerous either if they are handled professionally. Thousands of sticks of dynamite are handled every day in South Africa.

On an international scale, our mines use a record number of explosives every day. More people are killed every year by wild animals and sharks than by nuclear waste, hand grenades or dynamite. In fact, year-on-year, deaths from nuclear waste, hand grenades and dynamite are generally zero.

Every year, wild animals kill a few people, so you are much safer sitting on a box of dynamite than having a picnic in a game reserve. My point is: let us get our facts straight and stop believing fantasy images created by various groups with dubious agendas.

Nuclear waste is not a problem. People who, in panic-stricken voices, tell of the dangers of nuclear waste usually quote statistics that indicate that nuclear will be radioactive for hundreds of years or even thousands of years. Well, quite frankly, so what? Why does the length of time make a difference? The implication is that, over this period, some as-yet-unknown event will occur that will somehow release the waste into the environment.

That scenario is just not realistic. For starters, when the waste is laid down in the first place, a site is chosen that is particularly geographically stable. In the case of the nuclear waste repository in South Africa, it was found that the ground had been stable for at least 10 000 years, so why should it move in the next 10 000 years? As responsible people, we need to hand on our technological decisions to the next generation, who will hand on to the next, and so on. This is a relay of responsibility. Saying that we must be responsible for hundreds or thousands of years into the future is silly. The world will be so different then that we cannot even conceive it.

Nuclear power, in general, suffers from many public misperceptions, which is a great pity because this makes it particularly difficult to conduct a reasonable public discussion on nuclear power and its ramifications.

The South African government has stated clearly that the country will be building an additional 9 600 MW of nuclear power capacity in the immediate future. Immediately after the announcement, there was public comment that nuclear power construction is far too complex for South Africa to handle, and so we need to get foreigners to do this for us. Why? South Africa builds the largest coal-fired power stations in the world and we build all sorts of other technological gear. We build and export motor cars around the world. Why can’t we build nuclear power stations? Certainly, we would do so in conjunction with expertise from other countries, but a nuclear power station is not some insurmountable technological challenge.

A conference themed the Nuclear Power Future for Africa will be held at the Industrial Development Corporation offices, in Johannesburg, on May 29 and 30 to discuss nuclear power construction issues. South Africa plans to not only build nuclear power stations but also export components and subassemblies for nuclear power stations. To do this, a two-way trade in nuclear assemblies needs to be developed between South Africa and other countries. This will be discussed at the conference.

It is necessary for the conference to indi- cate to government what South African indus- try can actually achieve. The conference will be opened by Energy Minister Dipuo Peters. In addition, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has indicated that he will be sending a message of encourage- ment to the delegates to forge ahead and show what South Africa can do.

Many companies from various sectors of the economy are potentially part of this nuclear game without even realising it. They should all attend. What companies am I talking about? Well, the greater part of a nuclear power station is not actually nuclear! Such a power station consists of valves and pumps, with pipework and electrical controls . . . and more. There are concrete walls and floors, there is ventilation, steam pipes and turbines – I could go on. All this is non-nuclear and can be supplied by any company that can work to the required specifications. There are many such companies. Government has budgeted R300-billion to get the nuclear roll-out going. It is time that local industry started developing the required technology, and the relationships that go with it. Starting tomorrow is not too soon.

The conference must find out what is possible, and then show the public and the authorities that it is pos- sible. In that way, we can get going. I will be chairing the conference and I hope to see a very varied crowd there, trading ideas with all and sundry. A nuclear power conference is not for nuclear-qualified people only. It is for anybody who wants to hear reality and who wants to dispel some of the strange public misperceptions that do the rounds. It is for anybody who wants to get into the nuclear supply chain.

When we talk nuclear, we are not only talking of large reactors but also of small ones which can be deployed all over Africa. Nuclear is the future for Africa, so, hopefully, people from other African countries will also attend.