BYLINE: Brent Johnson
Many of the elements of the argument and debate around South Africa's nuclear (power) future are strangely metaphorical - both in terms of the fundamental chemistry underlying nuclear reactors and of the broader environmental, social and sustainability concerns.
Take radioactivity itself, for example - essentially it is the spontaneous emission of particles from the nuclei of the atoms of unstable elements. "Spontaneity", "emission", "unstable elements" - certainly terms the opposing camps of the pro- and anti-nuclear lobby would exchange in the vernacular of contemporary debate.
This observation is instructive if invoked to understand and characterise the nuclear energy debate in colloquial terms.
The discussion to date has been unbalanced, certainly in the popular press, and has tended to lean towards a reactive, "ecocentric" focus with the potentially negative aspects of nuclear power generation - most notably waste management and disposal - receiving disproportionate attention.
Like the fission derived from uranium-235 decay at the heart of our West Coast reactor, stability and balance seem to be absent from the debate. Most of the petitions proposed against nuclear power, many of them legitimate, seem to have strength only in the extraneous layers of argument. Helen Caldicott in her book Nuclear Power is not the Answer (2006) provides a thorough and in-depth consideration of the arguments against nuclear power.
One of the most notable is her opposition to the nuclear industry's "nuclear power is clean and green because it doesn't emit greenhouse gases" argument. She asserts that, in fact, the vast infrastructure required to create nuclear energy - the "nuclear fuel cycle" - is a prodigious user of fossil fuel and coal.
There is little doubting the integrity and veracity of this statement, and it is backed up by extensive energy expenditure figures. At times it is compelling. But, as with many of the anti-nuclear lobby's protestations, it seems to be context specific and lightweight. The fuel and mining cycles used to create and run the dirtier energy industries such as coal are equally prodigious users of fossil fuels and, doubling their impact, they then emit voluminous amounts of greenhouse gases - especially in the developing world.
Any South African familiar with the smoggy Hadean world created by the Witbank-Middleburg coalfields in the temperature inversion-prone Highveld will agree.
In addition, the antiquated coal- burning stations that continue to spew out tons of carbon and acidify the much overstressed Olifants River actually give off more radiation than a nuclear power station.
Certainly, it is clear that what we don't need are more coal power stations although, certainly in the short term, this will be South Africa's fate because of resource economic and supply issues.
The phases of the nuclear (uranium) fuel cycle, including uranium mining, the production of uranium hexafluoride, uranium enrichment, fuel element fabrication, reactor construction (a highly topical and acute issue in South Africa at the moment) and reactor decommissioning all have their negatives. Unlike its ugly stepsister coal, however, the uranium cycle is a subtler beast from a strictly environmental point of view. The sting is in the tail, the terminal phases of the cycle. Or is it?
Waste transportation, storage and disposal, like gamma rays, penetrate …