Burning questions on nuclear energy debated

Nuclear power – costly, dirty and dangerous to its detractors. To supporters, it’s the way to a cleaner world – a feasible way to generate large amounts of energy without burning coal. Photo: Getty Images / Malte Mueller

JOHANNESBURG – The R1-trillion nuclear deal is gaining momentum in South Africa with government stating that it will sign a procurement deal with partners by the end of 2015.

With load-shedding and a weakening economy South Africa needs a secure and reliable energy future.

Nuclear physicist Dr Kelvin Kemm says that nuclear energy can provide South Africa with the answer.

(Pictured above: File image of the Koeberg nuclear power station on the west coast of South Africa. Picture: Flickr.com / Jim Sher)

Meanwhile Russian anti-nuclear activist Vladimir Slivyak says South Africa should take caution when entering into Russian state nuclear agency, Rosatom.

The two experts discussed these issues at a debate organised by environmental justice organisation Earthlife Africa at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Monday night.

There are many of unanswered questions, and discussions around nuclear energy can get heated. Based on the discussions during the debate, eNCA.com has compiled a list of questions to burning nuclear questions.

Do we have enough skills and experience?

Kemm, CEO of Nuclear Africa and member of the advisory panel to the Minister of Energy Tina Joemat-Pettersson, says the country is more than qualified, as nuclear energy in South Africa has been around for a long time.

“South Africans have a long experience in this business,” said Kemm.

However Slivyak, co-chairperson for Russian environmental group Ecodefense, says that the VVER-1200 model of reactors government has been advised to buy from Rosatom are in fact not in operation in Russia and are in only in construction phase.

He says South Africa will run the risk of buying untested technology.

Is nuclear energy safe?

Probably the key question on everyone’s minds is that of safety. Radiation disasters like the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 have shocked the world but Kemm says that the disaster was exaggerated.

“How many people died from radiation caused by the nuclear accident? Zero.”

“How many people were injured or have fallen ill from radiation caused by the accident? Zero,” said Kemm.

While Slivyak agreed that this is true, he highlighted the high number of people who were evacuated from the area because of the disaster.

“More than 100,000 people were removed from within a 30km zone of Fukushima and those people still need to pay loans for their houses.”

The Japanese government said this area was too dangerous for them to live in because the level of radioactivity is too high.

Watch this Vice documentary about a farmer who still lives in the radioactive zone:

If the worst thing imaginable happens and South Africa does have its own nuclear accident involving a Russian nuclear reactor, Russia will not be responsible.

This is one of the terms and conditions in the agreement signed by Joemat-Pettersson with Russian authorities in 2014.

The agreement states that South Africa will be “solely responsible” for any damage cause within the country’s borders and externally.

Kemm says that radiation has a bad reputation and low levels are perfectly acceptable and found in everyday medicine.

Watch this video as Kemm explains how people are exposed to low levels of radiation during an X-ray procedure:

Russia is facing an enormous problem with nuclear waste, which is highly dangerous, says Slivyak.

Will it take a long time build?

South Africa’s nuclear plan is ambitious: it hopes to build eight reactors and have the first one generating power by 2023.

(Pictured above: A Google map showing the proposed site for the Nuclear 1 development at Thyspunt, about 12km from Cape St Francis in the Eastern Cape)

Slivyak says it's not possible for a reactor to be built in less than 10 years.

“Russia has only signed one build-own-operate deal with Turkey for a nuclear reactor. Five years after the deal was signed and construction still hasn’t begun,” he said.

If there are no unnecessary delays, a reactor can be built in less than ten years said Kemm. This has happened in South Korea.

“If systems are in place it is possible but you can’t have strikes everyday or bad project management,” said Kemm.

Nuclear energy is reliable

South Africa needs a reliable baseload power supply and Kemm says nuclear energy is the answer, not only for SA but for the rest of the continent.

“Many African countries rely on hydroelectric power and if it doesn’t rain for a long time they can lose up to half of the country’s power. They don’t have coal or gas, so nuclear is their only option for reliable power supply,” he said.

Nuclear energy is a 100-year-commitment

Should South Africa go ahead with nuclear energy it will be a commitment for the next 100 years at least, said Slivyak.

The anti-nuclear activist proposed renewable energy as a more viable option.

“Renewable energy is booming, growing fast and there is a lot of money to fund projects. If I was government I would wait a little bit for the price to come down and consider it as an option,” he said.


Discussion Policy

eNCA.com would like to send you push notifications.
Notifications can be turned off any time in your browser settings.
You have been registered for browser notifications