Masking the high risk of nuclear energy

In the aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami, Japan is facing the most important nuclear accident worldwide since 1986 when a nuclear reactor exploded at Chernobyl.

As South Africa is in the middle of launching its 20-year energy strategy, both the government and citizens would be advised to look closely at the reactor failures at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and elsewhere in Japan.

Although the explosion of four nuclear cores in the Japanese reactors was caused by an earthquake followed by a tsunami, and Chernobyl was provoked by the Soviet regime in crisis, these two events indicate an obvious dimension of the nuclear industry: it is intrinsically dangerous, whatever the political and economic context might be and whatever level of technological development has been reached.

Virtually all the main nuclear countries have experienced accidents that differ in degree and cause, but they indicate the high risks associated with the nuclear industry.
In the United States the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 displaced 140 000 people and put the brakes on the country’s nuclear programme for 30 years because no insurance company was willing to insure against nuclear accidents. The Chernobyl explosion contaminated the entire European continent and was directly or indirectly responsible for nearly one million deaths.

France, the second-largest nuclear country after the US, has never experienced such a dramatic accident but malfunctioning and mismanagement are common features of its nuclear industry. In 2008, following a leak in a reactor, an NGO found that 770 tonnes of radioactive waste had been stocked by the army for 30 years in an earth mound without any protection.

Accidents and incidents have been generated in the nuclear industry by numerous causes: earthquakes, “misplaced confidence” (as the New York Times put it for Fukushima), Soviet inefficiency, sabotage (remember Koeberg in 1982), missing bolts, spending cuts and poor regulation of the industry, to name a few. In France, after 9/11, the government reluctantly admitted that the concrete cradles that isolate its reactors were not designed to resist a commercial jet crash because the risk was judged to be too low.

The reader might wonder why such information is not more broadly reported. The reason is obvious: the nuclear industry is high risk at very large scales; when something goes wrong it affects millions of people. The industry has to mask the huge risk and to do so needs to control information.

The local industry has thus been restricting access to information for a long time, evident in a recent study edited by Kate Allen (Paper Wars, Wits University Press, 2009). Citing an international example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reached an agreement in 1959 that binds it to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and prevents it from initiating a programme or activity in the area of nuclear power without consulting the agency “with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement”. This could explain why the WHO still claims that Chernobyl caused 56 deaths and 4 000 thyroid cancers when the most authoritative studies put the toll at 995 000 deaths.

The consequence of such intertwining between risk management and control of information for countries like South Africa is clear: the development of the nuclear sector is not only a risk to the health of the people, it also inherently brings a greater risk for democracy. As the potential exposure to danger is drastically increased, the need for the authorities to veil some of the repercussions of their nuclear activities also increases.

Although France is pushing South Africa to buy its technology, both countries are struggling to find a place to dump their high-level radioactive waste. No village on Earth, if informed of the risks, would welcome the underground facilities that have to store radioactive waste safely for longer than the entire history of human civilisation. Decisions being made now will become an uninvited legacy for many future generations.

A nuclear industry needs special safeguards to prevent proliferation of weapons and to stop nuclear material from falling into suspect hands. As a result, South Africa may have to reintroduce the type of security state reminiscent of the apartheid years. South Africa’s nuclear policy argues, for example, that we will have to introduce a nuclear police force.

South Africa’s nuclear regulator is weak and suffering from an inability to manage existing radioactive wastes generated by its mining industry. Its record of communicating with the public is abysmal. The decision to increase the amount of nuclear power generation will defy the capacity of the regulator to monitor the industry effectively.

The choice the South African government will make for the development of our energy industry is thus not a mere technical option to prevent further load-shedding or to curb carbon emissions, but will more importantly impact structurally on the democratic system itself.

Estienne Rodary, an expert on environmental issues, is stationed at the University of the Witwatersrand. David Fig is a South African commentator on the nuclear industry and author of Uranium Road (Jacana, 2005)

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