What does SA plan to do with its toxic nuclear waste?

NEWS ANALYSIS

The current fix for high-level nuclear waste is to wrap it in glass cement and lead, then bury it as far underground as possible. That is, if you’re in the United States or Russia. Other countries leave the waste next to the reactors that create it, delaying any decision until they work out the technology to clean or safely store the dangerous residue. That’s what South Africa does.

The true cost of locking the country into a nuclear- energy build is now becoming clear. And moving and storing nuclear waste is incredibly expensive. Germany has become a test case for the rest of the world, after Chancellor Angela Merkel decided in 2011 to phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors. That decision came after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan earlier that year.

Nine of Germany’s reactors have already been shut down, while the rest are meant to be turned off by 2022. But their nuclear waste will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years – up to a million years. This also means someone has to pay to store that waste, and keep it safe, for that length of time.

Until now, Germany has stored its low- and medium-level nuclear waste at an old salt mine, Asse II. The West German government opened it as a temporary storage site in the 1960s. But a better solution didn’t come along, so they kept using the site until water started to leak into it. The government has spent R1-billion since 2010 to upgrade Asse II and get around this problem.

The operational costs of dealing with the waste are more than R300-million a year.

Like most other nuclear states, Germany has not built a place to store its high-level nuclear waste. This waste comes mostly in the form of spent fuel rods from reactors and is generally stored next to nuclear power stations in lieu of a better solution.

Germany’s plan for this extremely toxic high-level waste was supposed to come through a 700-page report published earlier this month. But the report pushed any decision back, saying such a storage facility would only be built sometime in the next century.

A report for the country’s environment ministry says: “There are currently no technical plans available for the envisaged waste recovery project, which would allow a reliable estimate of the costs.”

A big issue for Germany and other major nuclear power states, such as France, is who should pay for the storage of nuclear waste. Germany’s power utilities – the country has four major power producers – responded to government moves to put much of the cost on them by saying: “The temporary and final storage of nuclear waste in Germany is an operative task of the German government, which is politically responsible for this.”

The power producers are on the hook for R370-billion, which the state says they must cough up for the long-term storage of their waste.

That fight is ongoing and a long-term plan for how to store and deal with high-level waste is no closer to fruition.

This is a serious problem for the 447 nuclear plants operating around the world. About 150 are being decommissioned. Using the decommissioning costs of a United States nuclear plant, local nongovernmental group Earthlife Africa calculates that it will cost about R34-billion to decommission the two reactors at Koeberg in the Western Cape, South Africa’s only nuclear power station.

But this cost has not been included in official conversations about the proposed 9 600-megawatt new-nuclear build.

Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson signed a nuclear deal with Russian nuclear company Rosatom in 2014. If something goes wrong, according to the agreement, South Africa “is solely responsible for any damage both within and outside the territory of the Republic of South Africa caused to any person and property as a result of a nuclear accident”.

The sole mention of waste is in the section outlining co-operation: “The parties shall develop strategic co-operation and partnership in radioactive waste management in the Republic of South Africa.”

South Africa’s nuclear capacity resides at Koeberg, where power is generated, and at the Pelindaba research unit north of Johannesburg.

Low-level nuclear waste, such as contaminated clothing and other peripheral waste, is stored in metal and concrete drums at the Vaalputs waste site in the Northern Cape. The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) operates this facility.

The high-level waste remains stored near the reactors that create it.

Necsa’s plan for a new nuclear fleet envisages this waste being stored deep underground, instead of being reprocessed or recycled.

But what happens in the future in South Africa is unclear, given the secrecy of the new nuclear build programme.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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