The Real Cost of Nuclear Power

The Real Cost of Nuclear Power

Uranium Mining

Today we are having nuclear power pushed down our South African throats as the only option to provide cheap, clean power to the grid.  This is hogwash quite frankly.

As with any mining operation, the externalised costs are completely omitted as are the impacts on ecosystems[1].  Nuclear power relies on the mining of uranium.  In South Africa, this is a by-product of mining gold. Elsewhere, uranium is generally mined alone.

The uranium in the ground is benign.  Yes, it emits radiation and that radiation has impacted the ecosystems for years with no ill effects.  However, once mining starts, a whole number of chemical reactions occur which completely change the situation.  Two major impacts are the release of radon gas into the atmosphere and radioactive dust being released as well.  The latter coats the clothes of the miners and they often take it home to their families.  Both are inhaled, not just by the miners, but by the surrounding communities and the miners’ families.

The inhalation of radioactive nuclides causes lung diseases and the passage of those nuclides into the blood stream.  This opens up the recipient to cancer and also can impact on DNA.  The latter impact can result in malformed foetuses and sterility.

In addition, for every kilo of uranium extracted, 99 kilos of radioactive rock is dumped into tailings dams.  These are exposed to the air and the rain, consequently producing radioactive acid mine drainage water that pollutes the surrounding rivers and streams.  The air borne dust and radon gas further compromise the air quality of the region and also the quality of the agricultural land.  This results in the ingestion of polluted crops by the surrounding communities, further compromising health.

 Oh and did I mention that conventional coal power is used to produce the uranium?  Well in most places it is.  As are huge amounts of water which is heavily polluted and returned to the rivers and streams, producing water scarcity.

Uranium Beneficiation[2]

Well, once the ore has been brought to the surface, it has to undergo two further processes.  The first turns it into yellow cake by extracting the ore from the surrounding rock. This is called milling.  This is done either by using sulphuric acid or alkaline agents to extract it.  99.9% of the waste is stored as chemically aggressive, toxic and radioactive sludge in tailings dams.  These dams should be lined.  Water used in the process is also polluted with heavy metals and radioactive elements.

Next the uranium is converted to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) and subsequently enriched .  The waste from this enrichment process is depleted uranium, which is sometimes used in weapons.  Currently large volumes of depleted uranium are stored in Russia without future use. Its potential as fuel for the proposed Fast Breeder Reactors is very uncertain. 

Finally UF6 is converted into UO2, pelleted and inserted into fuel rods.  This produces more waste.

To fuel a 1000MW reactor core, the following happens:

25 tons of SNF

500 000 tons of waste rock

100 000 tons of tailings

150 tons and 1 300m3 of liquid waste during conversion

260 tons of Depleted Uranium

12m3 solid and 230m3 liquid waste in the fuel fabrication process

In addition, all these steps of the nuclear chain require large amounts of energy, often produced with fossil fuels.  60 grammes of carbon are produced per kilowatt hour to produce nuclear fuel.

These facts would seem to cast nuclear power in an entirely different light.

This then is the birthing of nuclear power.  Destruction of entire ecosystems into radioactive wastelands where people live compromised lives for the benefit of others, wealthier than they are, who have access to good health care.

You still think nuclear is good and clean and cheap?

The Building of the Nuclear Power Station

Not the last phase in the life of nuclear by any means, however, it is the next one.  The Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant is currently way over budget and well behind on completion as is Flamenville in France.  If South Africa were to build the nuclear fleet, it would be financially catastrophic.  Given the experience of Medupi, where commissioning date is uncertain and costs have ballooned, would anyone want to speculate on a nuclear power station?  I would suggest that this makes absolutely no financial sense and if approved will bankrupt the nation.

Nuclear Power Station Emissions

These have been proved to include caesium which affects cows’ milk.  There is a high incidence of particularly childhood cancers around nuclear power stations.

Nuclear Waste and Decommissioning

Now we hit the final nitty gritty.  To date, no nuclear power station has been cleanly and successfully decommissioned.  Sellafield in the UK is one of the worst examples, where a nuclear waste land has been created for around the next 250 million years.  Disposal of radioactive waste is a human rights disaster.  Most is disposed of in Africa, where it is dumped in the surrounding seas and oceans, or in Siberia, where it only affects convicts and the indigenous population.  USA waste and Canada’s appear to be disposed of in areas where only indigenous people are resident.   These two nations appear to dump all their noxious waste in such areas.  France dumps its into the Channel and most of the Irish and North Seas show elevated levels of radioactivity.

Should South Africa go with the nuclear fleet?

If you have read all of the above, what do you think?  We already have a water crisis.  We already have a radiation crisis in the Witwatersrand.  We have sun and wind for Africa.  We are constrained by indebtedness.

Sun and wind will create jobs and boost the economy.  Nuclear provides specialised jobs, which are usually filled by the very small number of specialised people in the world.  Sun and wind give ordinary people new skills which they can pass on to others, growing employment and our economy.

They can feed into the grid and, more importantly, they take households off the grid into power freedom.  What seems best for you?

[1] By ecosystems, I mean everything involved in the area – humans, animals, plants, water and air quality


[2] From the presentation of Dr Rianne Teule, Greenpeace at the Uranium Workshop in Tanzania, November 2010


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