Dear Mr Zita

Nuclear Energy in South Africa

I am writing to you as an individual South African and an ordinary Capetonian who is passionately opposed to atomic energy and who would like to see a South Africa entirely free of nuclear power stations and nuclear weapons.

There are several very good reasons why I think South Africa should follow the lead of Sweden and Germany (Europe's economic powerhouse) in pursuing a nuclear free future. These reasons include the following:

1. Nuclear power is expensive

Atomic power plants are hugely expensive, take around a decade to build and cost billions to decommission. A 2002 a UK Cabinet Office report showed that nuclear power costs more than on-shore or off-shore wind electricity per unit generated. Besides, nuclear power stations produce waste that remains lethal to the environment and humans for tens of thousands of years - how on Earth do you put a price on that?

The global' nuclear industry has long survived on-massive-government subsidies and South Africa has been no different: According to the World Council on Renewable Energy, it has been supported worldwide to the tune of a total of at least a trillion (i.e. a thousand billion) dollars, while only $50 billion has been spent on renewable energy. Imagine where we would be today if that ratio had been reversed?

2. Nuclear power is no solution to global warming

The nuclear industry claims that we need nuclear energy to reduce C02 emissions which are a major cause of global warming. While it is true that atomic energy plants generate substantially less C02 than coal-fired power stations, they still produce much more C02 than renewables.

If nuclear power would contribute 70% of all electricity produced worldwide by 2100 (which would require construction of 10 000 new nuclear reactors), it would lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of merely 16%. This is because electricity production is only a comparatively small part of the problem - fossil fuel powered transport being the biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

According to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, "each dollar invested in electric efficiency displaces nearly seven times as much carbon dioxide as a dollar invested in nuclear

power, without any nasty side effects. If climate change is the problem, nuclear power isn't the solution. It's an expensive, one-size-fits-all technology that diverts money and time from cheaper, safer, more resilient alternatives".

3. Nuclear power is not a renewable source of energy

The world's total recoverable reserves of uranium (the fuel for most nuclear power plants) have been estimated to be around 4.6 million tonnes. There may be another 10 million tonnes in undiscovered or low-grade ores. The world's current atomic energy plants need about 75000 tonnes of uranium oxide per year. Even without building the many n~ nuclear power stations that atomic advocates are demanding, the present recoverable reserves are enough to satisfy the world',s current nuclear capacity for only another 60 years (source: Is nuclear power a solution to climate change? by Pete Roche).

4. Nuclear power is dirty

The whole nuclear energy chain, from mining, to transport, enrichment, fission, -waste storage-and waste disposal creates pollution at every stage. Nuclear reactors generate high-level radioactive waste that will remain lethal for tens of thousands of years and operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants produces huge amounts of low-level waste.

The Blacksmith Institute has recently declared Chernobyl the most polluted place on Earth. Twenty years after the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster, the 19-mile exclusion zone around the plant remains uninhabitable. A former soviet uranium plant in Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan, also makes the top 10 list.

Between 1956 and 1966 a uranium refining mill in Tuba City, Arizona, processed hundreds of thousands oftons of uranium ore to help fuel the United States' nuclear effort. Today, former workers at the plant and inhabitants of Tuba City are still living with the effects: mine tailings, cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, groundwater contamination... these are just some of the externalised costs of the nuclear industry and Tuba City is just one of many examples from around the world.

Advocates of atomic energy love touting nuclear power as a source of clean and green electricity, but how clean is it really? Below, is some information from the December 2006 issue of Elements - An International Magazine of Mineralogy Geochemistry and Petrology, which is published jointly by several North American and European scientific societies:' The issue is entitled The Nuclear Fuel Cycle - Environmental Aspects and contains a series of articles by scientists who are described as "recognized leaders in their fields".

Manufacturing fuel for nuclear power stations produces radioactive waste at every step of the process, but the largest volume of waste consists of mine and mill tailings (i.e. material that's left behind after uranium ore has been mined and processed).

Mining of about 17 000 tonnes of 1 % uranium ore is required to produce enough uranium to fuel a 1 GW(e) nuclear reactor for one year. To date, worldwide mining of uranium ore has generated approximately 938 million cubic meters of tailings from more than 4000 mines. In most cases, the tailings are disposed off by "near-surface impoundment" (i.e. burial) near the mine or mill.

With levels of radioactivity ranging from less than 1Bq/g to more than 100Bq/g, catastrophic or continuous release of contaminants from these disposal sites can have substantial impacts on the environment.

The principal radiation risks from uranium tailings are radon gas, windblown radioactive dust dispersal and gamma radiation. Mill tailings are also frequently associated with elevated concentrations of highly toxic heavy metals which are a major source of groundwater and surface water contamination.

Improper disposal of mill tailings in the past has led to substantial water and soil contamination and disposal sites with no effective containment of the tailings are widespread. Hundreds of incidents of containment failure, resulting mostly from slope instability, earthquakes, seepage and overtopping, have been reported.

A typical 1 GW(e) nuclear reactor generates approximately 20 metric tonnes of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel waste per year. In the USA, the current "inventory" of this type of material stands at about 62 000 metric tonnes and is projected to at least double by the end of the operating life of currently active nuclear plants. At the moment, there are some 443 atomic energy plants in operation worldwide (with some 24.more under construction). The current global inventory of spent fuel is about 270 000 metric tonnes.

Proponents of nuclear energy argue that for atomic power to have a significant impact on greenhouse gas reduction, a three to ten-fold increase in worldwide nuclear electricity generation is necessary by 20 50.The ten fold increase scenario requires about 3500 new 1GW(e) atomic power stations to be built, which would produce some 100 000 metric tones of radioactive spent fuel every year.

The three-fold increase scenario would involve a new IGW(e) plant to be constructed every several weeks and the high level waste generated would necessitate opening a waste storage site similar to the one proposed at Yucca Mountain in the USA every three to four years.

The atomic energy industry thus generates vast amounts of toxic and radioactive waste that has already contaminated parts of our planet and much of which we have no idea what to do with as yet.

No repository for high-level nuclear waste has been established anywhere in the world, even though the USA has thrown millions of dollars at the problem. According to some estimates it may take another 25 to 40 years for a high-level nuclear waste facility to be in operation in the UK At a time when many countries, First World and developing, are looking to build more nuclear power plants this should surely be a major concern for all of us.

My friend Petrus commented the other day, that this is a bit like taking off in an airplane while knowing that the- airport at your destination hasn't even been built yet. Atomic energy pundits assure us that these are merely technical issues that will be solved in due course and should not detract us from thinking that nuclear power is the best thing since sliced cheese. I guess in terms of Petrus' analogy, they are suggesting we stay in a holding pattern above our destination until the damn runway has been laid down already.

The nuclear industry has given us a number of very telling examples of how not to store high-level nuclear waste. Here's the latest case, taken from The Ecologist Online:

"Tanks holding nuclear waste in the Russian Arctic are in danger of exploding in a spontaneous chain reaction, an environmental group has warned.

Bellona, a Norwegian group which campaigns against nuclear power and advocates clean energy generation, described the tanks as 'a powder keg' with a burning fuse.

A report distributed by Bellona states:

'Ongoing degradation is causing fuel to split into small granules. Calculations show that the creation of a homogenous mixture of these particles with water can cause an uncontrolled chain reaction. '

The three tanks are reportedly filled with 21,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and are sited at Andreeva Bay, on the Russian Kola Peninsula. Until recently, they were thought to be dry, but new investigations have shown corrosive salt water leakage.

Both Russian and Norwegian authorities said that there was 'no danger', but that steps were being taken to improve the storage facilities."

5. Nuclear power is dangerous

Just ask the people who used to live near Chernobyl! The US Department of Energy has estimated that around the globe (because yes, radiation can travel) there were around 40 000 cancer deaths that can be linked to the Chemobyl disaster.

And it isn't just dangerous when the huge disasters happen. Uranium miners are routinely exposed to substantial doses of radiation, particularly through inhalation of radioactive radon gas derived from uranium ore.

Nuclear power stations are prime targets for terrorist attacks and the civilian atomic energy industry produces highly enriched uranium and plutonium which can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

In March, the Oxford Research Group released a briefing paper entitled Secure Energy? Civil nuclear Dower. security and global warming, which summarises detailed evidence to show that a worldwide expansion of civil nuclear energy generation would significantly increase the risk of nuclear terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation.

A greater role for atomic energy would result in many more nuclear research and production facilities as well as transit routes for radioactive materials, providing a growing number of hard-to-secure targets for direct terrorist attack and theft of nuclear weapons-usable materials.

There is not enough sufficiently high-grade uranium ore in the Earth's crust to sustain the anticipated expansion of nuclear power for very long. The report claims that the "energy cliff' for nuclear power (i.e. the point in time when the system as a whole would consume as much energy as it can generate in usable electricity) based on uranium will be reached between about 2050 and 2075.

As a result, the nuclear industry will be forced to rely increasingly on reprocessing spent uranium fuel into Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) and reactor-grade plutonium. There are several reprocessing plants in operation, for example in the UK, Japan and France, at the moment, but more would have to be built in future to-satisfy-demand

The problem is that even with the most sophisticated technical safeguards available today there is always a degree of uncertainty about exactly how much plutonium is produced by such reprocessing plants.

This is inherent to the system and is not a matter of efficiency or competence of operators and safety inspectors. Even based on the most optimistic estimates (more than 99% efficiency), the potential amount of plutonium that may go statistically unaccounted for in one reprocessing plant, and could be diverted by unscrupulous govenunents or employees without being detected, is enough to manufacture a nuclear weapon each month.

Some atomic energy enthusiasts suggest that so-called "Generation N" or "breeder" reactors are the answer. These reactors use mostly plutonium and only little uranium, and in theory they produce more nuclear fuel than they use - they "breed" plutonium-239.

After 50 years of very expensive and intense research, no one has so far been able to demonstrate that this technology is actually technically feasible. Two of the current "breeders" have been out of operation for years and one has a long history of serious accidents. None of them have actually ever "bred" any plutonium-239. If they ever should become viable, "Generation N" reactors will only add to security worries because they produce super-weapons grade plutonium.

An increase in worldwide nuclear power generation will thus lead to a massive increase in radioactive material that can be used to manufacture atomic bombs.

To build such weapons is easier than most of us imagine. It has been estimated that 19 people with about US$l 0 million would be able to assemble a nuclear weapon in a year - not out of the question for a terrorist organisation or a rogue government.

6. Nuclear power has blood on its hands

Critics may consider this point a historical irrelevancy that should not cloud our rational judgment of the "peaceful" uses of atomic energy, but the civilian nuclear industry will forever be linked to the most hideous weapons of mass_ destruction invented and used by humans.

The connection between atomic bombs and nuclear power plants are, of course, as intimate in –South Africa as they are around the world . In the words of George Monbiot, “[…] we will never rid the world of nuclear weapons if we do not also rid it of nuclear power. Every state which has sought to develop a programme over the past 30 years - Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq and Iran - has done so by manipulating its nuclear power program".

In recent years, the the USA and the UK have made use of depleted uranium ammunition (considered by some as a convenient vehicle to get rid of nuclear waste produced by the atomic energy industry) in the wars in the Balkans and Iraq. These weapons have been connected with horrendous increases in cancers, deaths, birth defects and environmental contamination that are just the latest outrage in a long history of violence and bloodshed.

7. Nuclear power is unnecessary

Pro-atomic energy pundits will tell you that nuclear power provides 70% of France's electricity, that renewable energy sources are immature, unreliable and expensive and that their supporters are unscientific smelly hippies who don't know what they're talking about and whose sources are dubious at best.

They will not tell you that Germany, Europe's biggest economy, is in the process of phasing out atomic power entirely and they will not tell you that there have been numerous .scientific studies showing that currently available renewable energy technologies in conjunction with improved energy efficiency are capable of reducing global C02 emissions enough to keep global warming and climate change under control while allowing for continued economic and population growth. And all of it without the help of nuclear power.

Atomic energy generation has some very major unresolved environmental and socio-economic problems (including long-lived radioactive waste, the danger of environmental contamination and atomic weapons proliferation), so surely if the job can be done without it, plain common sense should dictate that we do.

Below, I've summarised a number of extremely thorough international scientific reports from reputable institutions and individuals that support the claims above.

A 2004 study by the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology ("Steps towards a sustainable development ') showed that simply by improving energy conservation and energy efficiency in a technologically feasible manner, the per capita energy demand of Switzerland could be reduced by two thirds while simultaneously increasing energy services by two thirds by 2050. In the US, it is estimated that energy demand could be reduced to one sixth of current use simply through more efficient technologies.

A 164-page study entitled "A Clean Energy Future for Australia" published in 2004 by WWF Australia and other members of the Clean Energy Future Group explores how Australia can cut its C02 emissions by 50% by 2040 through a combination of existing renewable energy technologies and improved energy efficiency while taking into account economic and population growth.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Delaware and Stanford University found that H[t]he wind resource off the Mid-Atlantic coast could supply the energy needs of nine states from Massachusetts to North Carolina, plus the District of Columbia-with enough left over to support a 50 percent increase in future energy demand [.. .]", and Gar Lipow showed that the USA could replace all of its non-hydro power plants with wind generators and electricity storage and still lower its overall electricity bill.

In January of this year, the American Solar Energy Society, with the backing of amongst others NASA.' s chief climate change-scientist, Dr.-James released a report entitled Tackling Climate Change in the U.S” This detailed study reveals that most, if not all, US C02 emission reductions needed to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 1 °c can come from energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies (solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal) without requiring any new nuclear power plants.

A 2003 study into the employment potential of renewable energy in South Africa (which is summarised here) found that electricity generation from renewable resources (solar, wind, biomass, landfills) would create many more jobs than conventional technologies (coal, gas, nuclear including PBMR).

The joint European Renewable Energy Council- Greenpeace report "Energy {R]evolution - a sustainable world energy outlook" concludes that “[r]enewable energy, combined with efficiencies from the 'smart use' of energy, can deliver half of the world's energy needs by 2050 [.. .]". The report “[...] provides a practical blueprint for how to cut global C02 emissions by almost 50% within the next 43 years,. whilst providing a secure and affordable energy supply and, critically, maintaining steady worldwide economic development. Notably, the plan takes into account rapid economic growth areas such as China, India and Africa [.. .]".

This is-accomplished using-only mature, proven and sustainable technologies, while phasing out nuclear energy and ,continuously reducing fossil fuel consumption.

South Africa with its long coastline, strong winds and long hours of sunshine has massive renewable energy resources. If countries like Switzerland, Australia and Germany can overcome the energy and global warming crisis, then why can't we?

For all of these reasons, I believe that nuclear power is not the answer to the world's or indeed South Africa's looming energy problems. It is imperative that ordinary South Africans are empowered to inform and educate themselves about atomic energy, that they are allowed to have input into the country's future energy policy and that they, in fact, should be directly involved in the decision making processes around this very important issue.

For South Africa to pursue a nuclear energy future would in my opinion be a grave mistake, economically, politically and environmentally. What is at stake is the kind of country we leave to generations of South African's to come.

Yours sincerely Andreas Spath