Demystifying nuclear energy: Do we need it to save ourselves?
Bruce Baigrie | Amandla 76 | June/July 2021
On 26th April 2017, the High Court delivered what was ultimately a death-blow to Jacob Zuma’s nuclear build programme. This was undoubtedly one of the most important judgements in South Africa’s history. The “nuclear deal”, estimated to be around 1 trillion rand, would no doubt have crippled the South African economy and entrenched a dangerous patronage network with ties to an authoritarian Russian state. Instead, civil society delivered us respite through the courts. Those involved are owed much.
Nuclear back on the agenda
That said, the removal of Jacob Zuma has not taken nuclear power off the table for South Africa. Indeed, as in the most recent IRP, under Minister Gwede Mantashe, “the expected decommissioning of 24,100 MW of coal-fired power plants supports the need for additional capacity from clean energy technologies including nuclear”. It takes the decision to “commence preparations for a nuclear build programme to the extent of 2,500 MW.” Koeberg currently provides 1860 MW.
Once again civil society is gearing up to oppose any nuclear build. For many, Koeberg should not even be recommissioned beyond its current decommission date in 2024. This decommissioning is highly unlikely to take place, and it might be difficult to stop the proposed new nuclear build programme if its processes follow a less-dubious approach than Zuma’s. But given the ongoing Karpowership procurement scandal, better processes also seems unlikely!
Regardless of its prospects for success, is there an argument that much of the opposition to nuclear energy is unfounded? The public discourse around nuclear energy is largely unhelpful in examining the technology. It should in my view, start with two undeniable facts:
- nuclear energy is a zero-emission clean source of power; and
- we are nowhere close to slowing down climate change.
Do we not owe it to ourselves and the planet to give it a closer look?
Is nuclear dangerous?
Nuclear energy is widely perceived as a dangerous technology, either because of potential reactor meltdowns ala Chernobyl, or because of its highly radioactive waste. But reality demonstrates that such reservations are overwhelmingly unfounded.
As dangerous and clean as… wind and solar?
Events like Chernobyl were devastating. Certain areas surrounding it remain uninhabitable. The initial death toll was 31 people and there remains intense debate around the number of long-term deaths from radiation and subsequent diseases. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it was around 4,000. This was clearly a tragedy. But this is also technology that has been around for 70 years with just two major disasters. Despite Cold War propaganda to the contrary, Chernobyl was not a nuclear blast. In fact it was a build up of steam that blew off the reactor casting. And the complicity of a decaying Soviet government coupled with old technology was central to the disaster.
Fukushima, the other disaster on everyone’s mind, is widely misunderstood. Rather than from direct radiation, the death toll of 573 was entirely due to the evacuation hence the victims were overwhelming the elderly. The estimates of the long-term deaths range from 1,000 to just the one confirmed death of a worker through radiation-induced lung-cancer. One also can’t separate this incident from the natural disaster that triggered it and as with Chernobyl, Fukushima was not a nuclear blast.
Even irrespective of whether or not they were nuclear blasts, when compared to coal, these numbers are simply negligible. Eskom’s plants alone are estimated to kill over 2,200 people a year. Some estimates put the global toll for fossil energy at 4 million a year – still more than all recorded deaths from Covid-19.
What about the waste?
There’s no denying it: nuclear power produces waste that is dangerous for up to 100,000 years. But how big of a problem is this?
What most people do not know is that only 4% of nuclear waste cannot be re-used as fuel and just 1% is radioactive beyond 300 years. In fact, nuclear power produces relatively little radioactive waste compared to other industrial processes. For example, in the US 5% of industrial waste is radioactive, but just 10% of that 5% of radioactive waste (0.5% of general industrial waste) is from nuclear energy.
But it remains true that this is still incredibly dangerous waste that requires constant management and maintenance. That in turn would require some sort of political stability… forever.
Fortunately, Finland has come up with a solution – the Onkalo Nuclear Waste facility. Deep in the bedrock of Finland, tunnels have been, and are being, dug, that will seal nuclear waste with what is essentially guaranteed safety. Utilising clay and concrete, the waste is no danger to the environment or humans – at least, for humans in society as we know it. The workers at Onkalo are struggling with an almost philosophical issue. How do you stop curious humans from digging up the waste in some distant future? Whatever signs or language used to deter people may no longer make sense and even draw people (or aliens!) in.
But is this quandary, regarding an extremely distant potential threat, larger than the immediate threat of climate change and deaths through continued reliance on fossil fuels for baseload and reactive power.
Unfortunately, there are many who do see the distant threat as greater. And the consequences are staggering. Negative public opinion on nuclear power has resulted in a series of nuclear plant closures. The most absurd example is in Germany. Closing its plants required the ramping up of supply from other sources due to the variability of its renewable generators.
Guess where this power came from? Research found that replacement of nuclear power with coal led to a 13% increase in emissions and likely killed an additional 1,100 people per year from 2011 to 2017. Similar increases have happened in parts of the US and Japan. The closure of the Indian Point power plant led to a 35% increase in power emissions and 46% increase in carbon intensity for New York state. Hopefully this serves as a lesson against not recommissioning Koeberg in 2024.
Closures of nuclear plants have repercussions beyond increased emissions. Nuclear power offers highly-skilled, well-paid jobs which are often accompanied by strong organised labour. By forcing the closure of nuclear plants, environmentalists continue to drive a wedge between workers and the climate. The Indian Point closure, that has been replaced by two gas plants, is an object lesson. The local union has managed to relocate most of its workers into other jobs whilst ensuring retirement packages for others. However, 1,000 clean energy jobs are soon to disappear, alongside two-thirds of the tax revenue for the local town. The community is devasted, and nuclear power workers, who should be seen as climate heroes, will blame environmentalists for their plight. Workers in clean energy can, and have to be, the leaders of the transition; but so long as they keep losing quality jobs in clean energy, they will only increase their resistance to renewable energy which can offer significantly fewer operating jobs and usually lower pay.
The hard climate reality is that nuclear energy remains the best means of delivering clean power. It has already prevented billions of tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.
There is an important metric for a power plant – its “capacity factor”. Power plants have a theoretical output capacity – what they are able to produce under permanently ideal circumstances. The capacity factor of a power plant is the percentage of that ideal theoretical output it actually generates over time. For a nuclear power plant, the capacity factor is close to 90%. It actually produces 90% of its ideal theoretical capacity. For wind and solar plants? Good weather conditions get a capacity factor of about 25% for solar, whilst wind can get up to 44% onshore and 52% offshore. Nuclear power be a strong complement to renewable energy. It can provide the residual load and reactive power that renewables don’t provide. And, nuclear energy can charge storage devices coupled to renewables during low demand periods at night.
And it seems that few opponents of nuclear energy want to acknowledge that the alternative as a complement to renewable energy is natural gas. This is an environmental disaster, not least because of its methane emissions.
But is it economically feasible?
No doubt about it, nuclear energy is expensive and slow to come online, making it economically “risky”. If you’re paying close attention to the discourse, this is the primary argument being made against nuclear, as many people have had to concede on the other arguments. A nuclear plant takes at least six years to construct, and depending on interest rates, this becomes expensive. Further, on average nuclear energy only becomes more profitable than gas after 17 years. This is why nuclear engineers are trying to develop smaller reactors, and progress is being made.
But as the Left, are we primarily focused on profits for something we should be delivering as a public good? Should we not welcome the significant employment and high-skilled labour associated with long-term nuclear energy projects and plant lifespans, which are also so favourable to unionisation?
Nuclear is risky for short-terms profits yes, but risky for a long-term energy strategy to reach net-zero emissions? Not so much. France’s nuclear build out before the onset of neoliberalism was the fastest decarbonisation process in history. It was achieved through a public-sector utility enjoying substantial resources and political support. Nuclear energy needs a strong public sector and that explains the motives of its many free-market and energy liberalisation critics.
Other arguments against nuclear energy relate to the mining of uranium and weapons. On the former, the mining of uranium can’t be separated from the mining of other elements. The waste from all mining practices – including those for renewables – is incredibly hazardous. However, in all cases this waste can be treated and stored relatively safely. Where this doesn’t happen it’s because these are companies not interested in paying more for their externalities. As with most things, we need to either regulate, or take mining under public ownership to guarantee safe waste disposal.
In addition, one uranium fuel pellet of 6 grams has the energy equivalent of one ton of coal, 450 litres of oil or 400 cubic meters of gas. The quantity of extraction required is much smaller and not just for “fuel”.
Nuclear energy also offers an advantage with respect to the so-called “post-petroleum resource race” for the various minerals required for renewable energy and electric vehicles. I have my doubts that capital will struggle to find the oil resources to meet demand, and, historically reserves have consistently been discovered as production increases. However, and in general, the less mining required the better, and nuclear power has the lowest mineral requirements among clean energy sources. And the chromium it requires is relatively abundant. In fact, South Africa accounts for more than a third of the world’s production.
The nuclear arms issue
There are claimed to be around 14,000 warheads in the world, although there are almost certainly more. Are we truly worried about countries which don’t have them, developing them through nuclear power?
Twenty-four countries have nuclear power but no warheads. And moving from nuclear power to nuclear weapons is a massive undertaking. This is why so few countries have done it and why we always know about those countries that are trying to do it. The risk is incredibly low; and, whilst Iran and North Korea are reprehensible regimes, are we so strongly against them developing warheads when the US and Israel have them? A global campaign led by the Left and anti-war movement needs to disarm and destroy warheads for good. This is a separate issue from nuclear energy.
Forward to a South African nuclear future?
Given all of the above, nuclear having a key role in our energy future seems to be an urgent necessity. However, considering the Medupi and Kusile builds, there’s massive reason for concern around mega-projects like nuclear power plants in South Africa. The necessary safety measures for the technology should also give one pause, given the condition of the South African state. Many of our world-renowned nuclear experts have been driven from Eskom as well.
The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy is looking to complete procurement by 2024 and this is why vigilance is still required and why we remain in debt to so many activists in our country. But if the argument from the Left is that the South African government will never be able to oversee large infrastructure projects, then we are delivering ourselves into a neoliberal future of privatisation across key sectors. This is giving up on a just transition – you can forget about a super grid, high-speed rail, and green fuels.
Surely those who believe in a socialist future can believe in delivering safe and reliable nuclear power. The focus must be on reclaiming and transforming a devastated public-sector that is increasingly in the cross-hairs of the Treasury – the climate depends on it.
Bruce Baigrie is a Political Organiser and Researcher at the AIDC. *Note an earlier digital version of this article did not include the last 2 sub-headings as it appears in the magazine, this has been included.