In terms of nuclear energy we have to decide NOW for or against the potential exposure to radiation as this will affect the present and future generations of our country.


Pursuing nuclear energy is short-sighted and void of any sense of accountability to future generations!

ONCE AGAIN, the tenacious efforts of the SA government to impose another burden on already burdened tax-payers in the form of a fleet of nuclear power stations was flouted in court.  All credit to our environmental organizations, SAFCEI (South African Faith Community Institute), Greenpeace SA and Earthlife Africa for their continued efforts.

My four main concerns are:

  •  South African citizens will carry a tax burden for many years to pay for an unnecessary and highly dangerous form of energy.
  •  It will make us extremely vulnerable to terrorism.
  •  Exposure to radiation (in the case of a nuclear meltdown or exposure to nuclear waste) will cause radiation sickness, many kinds of cancer and expose the unborn to mutations.
  •  Nuclear is not required as sustainable renewables are already well established and growing fast even without government subsidies.

The international community talks about DOOMSDAY – when various nuclear bombs will be set off across the globe. So, before going into an explanation of radiation and what it will mean to our health, environment and economy in South Africa, imagine we actually construct a series of nuclear power plants across our landscape and something goes wrong… and it will! It will just a matter of time.

What will be the consequences of a nuclear reactor meltdown or a nuclear bomb?

Terrorists can set off a “dirty bomb,” a weapon made of radioactive material attached to conventional explosives, sometimes referred to as a radiological dispersal device or RDD. Executing this scenario would be so easy that many experts are surprised it hasn’t happened already. Another possibility is that terrorists can sabotage a nuclear facility, releasing radioactive material over a wide area.

The detonation of a nuclear weapon unleashes tremendous destruction especially if the target includes a populated city. A wave of intense heat will emanate from the explosion, the blast will create a tremendous shock wave, widespread radiation will set in and a cloud of fine radioactive particles of dust (radioactive fallout) and bomb debris will fall back to the ground.

At the centre of the blast everything is immediately vaporized by the high temperature – over 300 million degrees Celsius. Outward from the centre there will be casualties and severe burns and injuries caused by the heat and acute exposure to high radiation as well as by flying debris of collapsed buildings and other objects due to the shock wave. In the long term, radioactive fallout then continues to spread because of prevailing winds where the particles enter the water supply and are inhaled and ingested by people at a distance of up to 100 km’s from the blast.

Scientists say that radiation and radioactive fallout affect those cells in the body that actively divide like that of hair, intestines, bone marrow and reproductive organs. This will increase the risk of leukaemia, cancer, infertility and birth defects.


What is nuclear energy?

Most nuclear reactors are based on the concept of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission occurs when the nuclei of uranium atoms are bombarded with neutrons. This bombardment breaks the uranium nuclei apart, releasing heat, radiation and more neutrons. The neutrons that are released cause a chain reaction as more uranium nuclei get bombarded, releasing massive amounts of atomic energy.

In a nuclear power plant, this chain reaction is controlled. Therefore, a nuclear reactor cannot explode like an atomic bomb. It is used to boil water to create steam, which in turn causes turbines to spin, generating electricity in a power plant. Nuclear energy has the advantage of not burning any fuel – so there are no pollutants released into the air which is the case with coal. So in the light of climate change challenges nuclear power can generate electricity without causing greenhouse gas emissions!

However, there are safety concerns that come with nuclear power, including the possibility that a nuclear power plant could accidentally release radiation into the environment or be targeted for a terrorist attack. There is also the yet unanswered problem of what to do with radioactive waste. Obviously there are safeguards to protect workers at nuclear plants and people in the vicinity from exposure, but the only thing that stands between them and a mistake is time.


How would radiation affect me?

Radiation is energy in motion in the form of waves or streams of particles. Sound and visible light are familiar forms of harmless radiation. But radiation from nuclear power can cause changes in atoms, creating electrically charged atoms which we call ions. Unlike heat and light, ionising radiation is invisible to our senses so you can’t feel, see, hear, taste, or smell it.

All types of ionising radiation can cause physical damage to living cells, which may result in injury to living tissues and organs, and cancers, and cause genetic damage to present and future generations when a person is exposed to high or moderate levels of radiation.
In addition to human health concerns, there are also environmental health concerns associated with nuclear power generation. Nuclear power plants use water from local dams and rivers for cooling. Local water sources are used to dissipate this heat, and the excess water used to cool the reactor is often released back into the waterway at very hot temperatures. This water can also be polluted with salts and heavy metals, and these high temperatures, along with water pollutants, can disrupt the life of fish and plants within the waterway.

The mining of uranium also seriously affect the environment and the health of mine workers and neighbouring communities. Uranium mines pile up mountains of tailings releasing radioactive dust that will remain in our air, soil and water for thousands of years to come making those who breathe and consume it prone to various kinds of cancer.


What is the alternative?

Greenpeace, SAFCEI (South African Faith Community Environmental Institute) and Earthlife Africa is demanding a halt to the country’s proposed R1 trillion nuclear expansion program as the proposed nuclear investments would offer no solution to South Africa’s electricity situation.

In fact nuclear projects are only a distraction from the real solution to the crisis: investments in renewable energy. It would take at least 15 years for new nuclear projects to deliver electricity to the grid, which is far too little, far too late and comes at far too high a price – R800bn over 20 years! Why should South Africans wait another 15 to 20 years for nuclear projects to come online when renewable energy investments can immediately resolve the country’s urgent energy problems? Added to this the nuclear build plans have so far been plagued by secrecy, controversy and serious irregularities.

In 2013 the 2010 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) (a 20-year road map of South Africa’s future electricity generation) was updated, but had never been submitted to cabinet. Instead it went through a public participation process only for it to disappear again. In the meantime we have a minister and a president signing deals with the Russians which are not transparent and the public is not allowed to see.

In the absence of an update to the outdated national Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity, the CSIR Energy Centre has presented its own study to re-optimise the South African power capacity and energy mix from 2016 to 2040. Here the CSIR has taken into account the considerably lower electricity demand forecast for the years ahead, the significantly reduced cost of electricity from solar photo-voltaic (PV) and wind capacity, and South Africa’s international commitments to constrain CO2 emissions.

As a result the CSIR has found no need for new coal and new nuclear power. They have been completely removed from the energy mix for the years ahead to 2040. The increased role of PV, wind and gas instead of new coal and nuclear power and the declining role of coal as Eskom’s old, coal-fired generation plant is retired, results in CO2 emissions that are some 60% lower than that of the “business as usual” scenario, with a saving of 40 billion litres of water per annum by 2040.
If first world countries like Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Israel are all in agreement to shut down their nuclear reactors over the next few decades, we need to ask ourselves why our government so hell-bent on this destructive course.

Furthermore, with an increase in nuclear power stations the dangers associated with nuclear reactors will also accelerate, such as devastating accidents and radio-active waste accumulation. Many more back-doors could be created to leak nuclear products resulting in nuclear weapons being produced illegally resulting in nuclear related terrorist attacks.

If the same investment is channelled to support technologies that offer sustainable solutions we will have a hopeful energy-future in Africa. Why burden the future earnings of a struggling economy with a dangerous and unsustainable form of energy? The obsession of government to spend trillions of tax-payer’s money on nuclear energy should rather be diverted towards a real sustainable future.

Thank you for reading and please, give me your point of view.

Jean Hugo