Koeberg's two faces

When a new nuclear power station has been fired up and starts to deliver a constant flow of megawatts, the plant is said, in the jargon of the industry, to have reached a “critical” phase. During a tour of the Koeberg power station near Cape Town this month, Eskom assured journalists that this was merely an unfortunate choice of phrase and that nuclear-generated electricity was the cleanest and safest form of power available to South Africa. 

But the Chernobyl catastrophe in the Soviet Union has established beyond doubt that the nuclear industry deserves the terminology it has inherited, says a lobby of local ecologists. And while other industrialised countries are exploring energy supplies that have less cataclysmic prospects, apartheid and international isolation are forcing South Africa along the path to nuclear power.

During its show-Koeberg-to-the-media tour, Eskom representatives highlighted the following facts to back their claim that during its “critical” phase the power station is, in fact, no threat to the ecology and the people around it:

  • Radiation is a natural phenomenon and the levels emitted from the granite rocks on the beach of Sandy Bay, on the same coastline as Koeberg, is about 45 times the radiation that the power station adds to its immediate environment. 
  • The massive amounts of soot, dust and sulphur dioxide -which cause acid rain and pose a threat to the ozone layer - are absent from Koeberg. A coal-fired station the size of Koeberg churns out two million tons of ash a year; Koeberg produces just 22 tons of waste.  
  • Unlike the Chemobyl power station, the French-designed nuclear reactor in South Africa is protected by an encasement of steel and concrete that is capable of withstanding the impact of an out-of-control Jumbo jet and most explosions that might occur , inside the reactor. 
  • The highest dose of radiation that an individual worker has ever been I exposed to at the plant is little more than half the legal limit. During the seven years that it has supplied nuclear power, Eskom boasts that not a single worker has died from radiation exposure or any other form of industrial accident at Koeberg. 

Earth Life Africa, a recently formed organisation of environmental activists, disagrees. “There is a need to look at the whole chain of nuclear production, from the mining of uranium for fuel to the handling of deadly plutonium waste, before one can assess the amount of environmental contamination that a nuclear power station can produce,” says representative Henk Coetzee. 

Power stations like Koeberg create some of the most potent toxins s known, during the reactive process. These include radioactive iodine, which concentrates in the thyroid gland and causes cancer; strontium, 90, which is absorbed into human bone marrow causing highly malignant tumours as well as leukaemia; and plutonium, which breeds malignancies and can cause great deformities in a developing foetus, Plutonium, named after the god of the underworld, is potent enough for just one millionth of a gram to kill a human, says Coetzee, who works at the University of the Witwatersrand as a research geologist. Only 2,5kg of plutonium would be sufficient to kill every man, woman and child on earth. 

The Koeberg power station produces 400kg of plutonium a year, says Coetzee. Eskom says the figure is closer to 100kg. The waste has a half-life of 25 000 years - it takes this long for half of the substance to decay. And for all of South Africa’s energy needs to be supplied by nuclear power at least another 30 Koeberg’s will have to be built. Eskom stores these lethal substances underwater in a spent-fuel tank at Koeberg, which is not located in the containment that protects the plant’s reactors. Within 30 years these will have to be removed and stored permanently - and Eskom admits that it does not yet know how and where it will dispose of its high-level wastes. 

Eskom’s agreement with Framatome, the French company that built Koeberg, states that the spent-fuel must eventually be sent for reprocessing to France. There the wastes will be extracted. France will keep the plutonium for fear of it being used by Pretoria to make nuclear weapons. The rest will be sent back to South Africa for storage. Most other nuclear countries plan to store their nuclear waste in deep underground caverns carved into rock that is impermeable to water. “But there is absolutely no place on earth where it is safe to keep these sub¬ stances,” says Earth Life member Peter Lukey. “No rock type can be said to resist seepage or be safe from tremors and earthquakes for the thousands of years that the waste will be highly radioactive.” 

In 1976, dissident Soviet physicist Zhores Medvedev reported a vast nuclear explosion had been sparked by waste stored underground in the Urals. Whole towns had to be evacuated, rivers and lakes in the region were isolated by canals, and maps of the region were mysteriously redrawn. The Soviet Union, which denied the reports for years, has recently acknowledged the catastrophe. In the year that the accident occurred, Sir Brian Flowers, head of British Commission on Environmental Pollution, reported: “We must assume that these wastes will remain dangerous and will need to be isolated from the biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. In considering arrangements for dealing safely with such wastes, man is faced with time scales that transcend his experience.” 

South Africa’s political instability exacerbates the dangers inherent in producing high-level nuclear waste, says Earth Life. There is no guarantee of social stability in the immediate future and the country’s fragile international status makes it necessary for the waste to be transported over long distances before being reprocessed in France. “Planes crash and ships sink,” says Coetzee. “This arrangement greatly increases the chances of an accident.” The potential for such a disaster was highlighted last year when a truck loaded with radioactive uranium powder, to be used in the manufacture of nuclear fuel rods, overturned on the Majuba Pass in Natal. 

The government’s concern for the security of its plants is reflected in a ruling that nuclear power stations may not be built within 100km of a foreign border and 50km from a “homeland” border. Ironically, while journalists were being shown around Koeberg, barricades were burning 30km away in the streets of Cape Town. South Africa also does not have the capacity to recycle its spent nuclear fuel. If a French government decided to cut all ties with Pretoria, this country would be left with hundreds of kilograms of highly toxic waste and no immediate method of disposing of it Earth Life is also concerned by the potential for nuclear power stations to undermine what civil liberties are left in this country. Koeberg is already surrounded by a massive security apparatus and some of these facilities, are let to the SA Police for the housing of kitskonstabels

The Nuclear Energy Act gives the minister of energy affairs powers that are as harsh as the media restrictions imposed by the State of Emergency. These include the discretion to bar the publication of any information related to a nuclear accident- making it theoretically possible for incidents to have occurred at Koeberg which the public is not aware of. While apartheid and international isolation magnify the dangers that surround nuclear power stations, Pretoria’s policies have cut the country off from cheaper and safer sources of power in Southern Africa. 

Just one dam on the Zaire River, which would be cheaper to build than a power station and has none of the hazards associated with nuclear power, would be able to supply the whole of South Africa’s electricity needs. But the failure of Mozambique to supply even small amounts of electricity to South Africa from its Cahorra Bassa Dam, because of sabotage from right-wing rebels, illustrates that the importation of hydro-electric power will become an option only when regional conflict and aggression in the region is put to a stop.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.



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