Monday, August 3, 2009

Why go nuclear when better and cheaper options exist?

Why go nuclear when better and cheaper options exist?

Eskom's hikes in the electricity price by around a quarter and a third in two years and its need to repeat such price increases for the next three years bring one issue to a head.

Why are Eskom and the departments of energy and public enterprises so grimly determined to generate electricity by the most expensive and complicated of all options -- atomic power stations and their high-level radioactive waste depositaries?

Eskom and other power companies have set up Westcor (Western Corridor Power Company), incorporated in Botswana. This has spent years conducting road shows for the World Bank and others, estimating the Inga3 hydro-electric power project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at around R70-billion.

By contrast, French multinational Areva's tender for an atomic power station generating a similar amount of power was reported variously at R140-billion and R200-billion. That Eskom refuses to release the price indicates defensiveness, suggesting the higher price tag is the actual one.

Beyond Inga3, Grande Inga could double Eskom's current. Grande Inga is a proposal to provide renewable energy -- green electricity with a small environmental footprint -- by building the world's largest hydro-electric power station on rapids on the Congo River in the far west of the DRC. This is a peaceful region under control of that government. Transmission lines would bring that power directly to Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Engineers have been refining this project for four decades. It will ­create synergy between South Africa's industrial and foreign policies by binding closer together in trade Angola, Botswana, the DRC, Namibia, South Africa and the rest of the SADC, through the Southern African Power Pool.

The head of Eskom's renewable energy division has announced plans to build a prototype 100MW concentrating solar power (CSP) plant in the Northern Cape, followed by as many 1 000MW plants as needed. Yet the recent plans of the department of public enterprises project finance only for atomic power stations and allocate zero funding to hydro and CSP.

The environmental impact assessment reports released by Eskom consultants on three proposed nuclear stations read as tendentious propaganda, pushing only the atomic power option. They assert -- without substantiation -- that CSP is unproven. They are either ignorant of, or censoring information about, California's generation of 350MW from CSP for over a decade -- with a better track record of reliability than Koeberg. Most bizarre of all is the state throwing good money after bad into the ever-escalating price of the pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR). The PBMR generates less electricity than any other type of atomic reactor costing the same price.

There are two bombshell facts for taxpayers and neighbouring residents. The first is that the PBMR generates more than 10 times the volume of radioactive waste than any other known type of atomic reactor. This will require taxpayer funding of 10 times the volume of underground excavation for high-level radioactive waste depositaries.

The second fact never aired by PBMR promoters is that its defects include the radioactive gas by-products of nuclear fusion, such as a radioactive isotope of xenon, seeping and percolating through their famous pebbles and escaping into the coolant. The German prototype PBMRs had five orders of magnitude more leakage of radioactive gas than any conventional type of atomic reactor.

"Five orders of magnitude" is scientific jargon for 100 000 times more radioactive gas escaping than in conventional reactors.

The mantra of the PBMR promoters is that their atomic reactor is so "safe" that it does not need shielding; that it needs only a primary and not a secondary cooling circuit.

This means that the helium circulating through their turbines will contain a dirty mix of everything from radioactive xenon to graphite dust. Every maintenance break will need to be done in the added complexities and dangers of this radioactive environment.

To perform atomic experiments on an industrial scale within the municipal borders of South Africa's second-largest city is reckless irresponsibility. It might well be judged culpable in civil lawsuits.

Let us not give science and technology a bad name in a country that needs more of both. Eskom and the departments of energy and public enterprises should go for the cost-effective, simpler options mix of Grande Inga and CSP.

Keith Gottschalk is in the political studies department at the University of the Western Cape

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian Online on 2 August 2009

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