Saliem Fakir is wrong on every count in his attack on nuclear power under the headline:‘Four reasons why nuclear is dead beat’, published in Engineering News, May 30–June 5, 2014. Actually, nuclear power is the safest, cleanest and most economic option for the huge extra baseload electricity that South Africa desperately needs.
First, he quite wrong to say that electricity demand is slowing down. What is slowing down is electricity supply. Since 2007, Eskom has not been able to meet demand, and the result has been demand cutting, load-shedding, scrapping of industrial projects and crippling of the economy. One of the reasons for the slowing economic growth is the shortage of electricity. For a healthy economy, we need vast amounts of extra electricity, especially baseload electricity, for which nuclear is the best option. Wind and solar are utterly useless for this.
Second and third, he is quite wrong about costing and delays of nuclear plants. Apart from problems with a single reactor design, the French European pressurised reactor, nuclear reactors are being built on budget and on schedule all around the world, including Russia, Eastern Europe, the US, the Middle East, China and Korea. Costs are coming down with the new, simpler, standardised designs. Recent contracts for new nuclear plants are coming in at about $4 000/kW between countries, and less than $3 000 in China and Korea. This makes the levelised costs of nuclear power lower than any other energy source, except, perhaps, gas turbines if the gas price is exceptionally low.
Fourth, he is wrong about new nuclear technology being “unknown”. On the contrary, it is better known than all other energy technologies. The new AP1000 reactors, for example, now being built in China and the US, use proven components, proven systems and the proven laws of nature. They could hardly be simpler or better known.
The radiation from the “nuclear disaster” at Fukushima killed no one and harmed no one – quite unlike the devastating toxic pollution from the mining in China of the neodymium used in wind generators.
Recently, Germany demon- strated dramatically how economic and clean nuclear is compared with wind and solar. In 2011, Germany decided to phase out nuclear power, the country’s cheapest and most reliable source of electricity, and replace it with wind and solar. The result has been soaring electricity bills, blackouts and electricity failures, rising pollution and rising carbon dioxide – since wind and solar are so unreliable, Germany has been forced to start up more coal stations.
The Green lobby, of whom Saliem Fakir is such a marvellously vocal spokesperson, gives us four reasons why nuclear should be dead. Can I provide four reasons why he is dead wrong?
First, nuclear power is the lowest-cost power once it is up and running. To be sure, it costs a bit more to install than coal plants, but less than the green renewables once you do the costing on the basis of the electricity produced. We are always being told that nuclear is more expensive. Any time you build 9 600 MW of power, you will pay a lot. Yes, it could cost somewhere between R300- and 400-billion to build 9 600 MW of nuclear. But windmills, for example, cost some R15 000/MW installed, and deliver about 25% of their installed capacity. So, to match 9 600 MW of nuclear power, you would need to install about 38 400 MW of windmills at a capital cost of nearly R600-billion.
Then, the nuclear plant lasts for at least 60 years, whereas you will be lucky if the windmill lasts more than 20. Suddenly you realise that the wind isn’t free. Ask the Germans. Thanks to their government’s love affair with renewables, they now have the most expensive power in Europe. Many customers have been forced to sign interruptible contracts, so that the electricity can be cut off when the wind isn’t blowing. Last year, there were over 200 000 occasions when there was a power cut lasting more than five minutes somewhere in Germany. Rolling blackouts have become the new norm.
Secondly, nuclear power is safe. Look at any energy system and the lifetime injury rate involved. Coal is a bit messy, with gas explosions underground being far more common than one would like. But, at least, it doesn’t throw things around the countryside like failed windmills, or ask people to work 90 m in the air where just getting there for a bit of maintenance is hazardous. No, nuclear is safer than all of them, even when you throw in the few who died as a result of Chernobyl. None died at Three Mile Island; few will have their lives shortened as a result of Fukushima.
But what about the destruction of land, cry the Greens. Yes, a bit of Ukraine is still uninhabitable; ditto some bits of real estate round Fukushima. But it is not forever – Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also just as badly contaminated yet today are thriving modern cities.
What about the waste, cry the Greens. Yes, indeed. It is the lowest volume waste of any of the energy sources. When it is fresh from the nuclear fire, it is hot, like the ash from any fire, and must be handled with care. But it soon cools, and then you can bury it where no one can get at it. It will grow cold in solitary splendour. A few more years, and it will be safer than the ash from a coal-fired power station. Meanwhile, all the nasties you have had to build into your windmill or your solar photovoltaic farm will remain nasty, and their volume will be bigger, and they will remain nasty forever. Arsenic was poisonous to the Romans – it is just as poisonous today.
And the risk of proliferation? Of nuclear warfare? The wastes from a modern nuclear reactor contain more Pu-240 than Pu-239. Bombs made from Pu-240 fizz, don’t go bang. So even if you could recover the plutonium from the power-plant waste, it would be useless plutonium until you have separated the isotopes and removed the Pu-240. That would be a mammoth task, and you would be better off separating the uranium isotopes in the first place. The risk of proliferation is wildly overstated.
Cheap, clean power, and someone says it is heading for the graveyard? Methinks someone may just be mistaken.
Professor Philip Lloyd,
Energy Institute: Cape Peninsula University of Technology