Thorium and fairy dust: the future of nuclear?

Nuclear power is currently predominately based on uranium fuel.  This is an issue for two reasons. Uranium reserves are limited, and should nuclear power become widely used, economically extractable reserves would run out within decades.  Secondly, the current 400 odd reactors in the world are producing high level waste at a rate far exceeding the rate at which long term solutions for handling this waste are being planned.  The industry has acknowledged these problems, and the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) sometimes refers to uranium based nuclear power as a ‘bridging technology’.

One alternative put forward is thorium.  There are about four times more known thorium than uranium reserves and a thorium reaction works differently, so the fuel lasts longer. Continue reading

Earthquakes and Nuclear

As South Africa contemplates building nuclear power stations along the coast, consultants from GIBB have been given the job of assessing the potential impacts of doing this.  This includes looking at the risks.

Photograph of crack in road in Ceres caused by earthquake

Damage in Ceres from 1969 quake

One obvious risk is that of an earthquake damaging the nuclear reactor, as happened in 2011 in Fukushima.  To assess this risk, GIBB produced a specialist report in 2011 (i.e. done before Fukushima) titled “Appendix E4: Seismic Risk Assessment”. Continue reading

Proposed nuclear build outside Cape Town – public participation meetings

The government is asking the South African public for their input on the proposed nuclear build 30km outside Cape Town in a series of public meetings. These meetings are always attended by the few pro-nuclear stakeholders and it is important that the public also attend to share their concerns about safety, costs and environmental issues.


Melkbosstrand: 18:00, 12 October 2015
Atlantic Beach Golf club

Kenliworth: 18:00, 13 October 2015
Kenilworth Community Presbyterian Church

Is it really worthwhile attending?

Yes! South Africa has an excellent constitution and powerful laws Continue reading

How to ride the nuclear gravy train

Will South Africa be able to raise the money to purchase a nuclear power reactor? Probably not. The Treasury recently admitted that it has done no costing or affordability study for nuclear power, and the 2015 budget made it clear that no money has been allocated for the next three years.

And every year, prospects get bleaker for the nuclear industry…
In addition, the falling value of the Rand, and the constantly increasing dollar cost of nuclear plants make it less affordable for South Africa with each year that passes. But just because the train will never reach its destination, that doesn’t mean you can’t get aboard and enjoy the gravy! Continue reading

What’s the deal??

There has been a lot of press recently about the ‘nuclear deal’ with Russia.

It all started when our brand new Minister of Energy, Ms Tina Joemat-Pettersson, came back from a United Nations hosted International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting in September.  Among her papers was a press release, which was issued on 22 September 2014, and publicised for example here.

There is a deal…
However, the newspapers provided very little, if any, actual information.  Some bits were quotes from old speeches by the Minister or statements from the Department of Energy, and it spoke of ‘laying a foundation’, which clearly was not a purchase order.  Despite that, it was headlined as a ‘deal’, and mixed in with figures about the total cost of a fleet of nuclear reactors.

There is no deal…
There followed a week of flurry in the press, with a retraction from the Department being released almost immediately, and continued furious backtracking with articles appearing like No nuke reactor deal with Russia and SA signed several nuclear agreements.

So what happened?  One theory is that our President has signed a secret deal with Putin and perhaps others in Russia to commit to buying nuclear reactors from them.  This would be tricky to implement, since it would so clearly bypass any bidding process and the Public Finance Management Act.  However, there are worrying factors, such as the Secrecy bill, President Zuma assuming control of the inter-ministerial committee formed to implement the nuclear roll out, Russia being free of EU anti-corruption laws, nuclear being carefully excluded from the 2011 new generation build regulations, and increasing control over the judiciary by the executive.

Another theory is that this was the product of the public relations people hired by the nuclear industry.  They would have been swarming all over the recent IAEA conference in Vienna, and our freshly appointed energy minister would have been easy prey.

These PR professionals would have generously offered to assist with the wording of an agreement, and even with writing the associated press release.  They were perhaps surprised by the lack of resistance or any analysis by Joemat-Pettersson, and no doubt pleased with themselves and the positive press they had manufactured, especially by wedging the word ‘deal’ into things.

Column inches…
Someone more informed than Joemat-Pettersson saw the press release, and understood any such deal would be illegal and invalid.  There followed some intense damage control, and the deal became an agreement.  There were also apparently many such agreements planned with other countries.

The job satisfaction of the PR team must have also been short lived, as the backlash resulted in articles about the ever increasing costs of nuclear power and other negative aspects.

Fusion will be here in 15 years?
There is another IAEA conference coming up in October 2014, this time about fusion, hosted by Rosatom in Russia.  The PR machine will again be out in force, and no doubt there will be press releases appearing around the 18th October.  Hopefully they will come up with something more than ‘fusion will be in use in about 15 years’ – which has been the case since 1956.

Policies and plans…
In South Africa, decisions are made in the context of various govermental documents.  First there is the nuclear policy, adopted by the ANC in 2008, which is pro-nuclear.  Then there are two energy plans, the Integrated Energy Plan (IEP), and the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) which deals with electricity specifically.  There is also the National Development Plan (NDP), a vision for South Africa from some of the most respected thinkers in SA.  At a lower level, there is the Nuclear-1 Environmental Impact Assesment and also a National Nuclear regulator licensing process, both of which must be passed before any order for nuclear reactors can be finalised.

Wait, don’t do it, wait…
The IEP recommends that a decision on nuclear is delayed for a few years to see what happens to relative energy costs, specifically from renewable sources.

The IRP states that should nuclear power capital costs exceed $6500 per kWh, the nuclear option should be abandoned.  However, the Rand has fallen to around R11.30 to the dollar, so this figure should be adjusted to around $5800.  The most recent nuclear build in the United Kingdom came in at $8000 per kWh, and that is before any future cost overruns. This means the IRP clearly recommends that nuclear power be abandoned.

Finally, the NDP came out strongly against going ahead with nuclear power, calling for a national debate on the issue before any decision is made.

Nay, nay, nay… the yay’s have it!
Despite these three ‘no’ votes, the executive seems to be steaming ahead. Possibly its because they are working off outdated documents – the IRP 2010 and the Nuclear Policy of 2008 are about five years old, included overestimates of electricity demand, and pre-date recent advances in renewable energy, as well as the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Hopefully, when the updated IRP is released the Department of Energy will align itself to that and formally abandon the nuclear path.

And hopefully, there won’t be a cheap Russian solution which omits some of the more expensive safety features and comes in under $5800/kWh.


Nuclear talk just puff

A letter to the editor of the Mail & Guardian, in response to an article from NECSA, where a Mr Mabhongo claims that the nuclear energy industry is growing:

Much like an undertaker painting a rosy hue on the cheeks of a favoured relative before the final viewing, Mr Mabhongo makes a good job of attempting to paint a rosy hue on the dying nuclear industry. Examining the facts, however, paints a quite different picture.

70 under construction?
For example, as part of his good story, he writes that ‘More than 70 new nuclear reactors are currently under construction’. The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), a United Nations body formed to promote the use of nuclear power, maintains a global database of commercial nuclear reactors. This lists 70 ‘under construction’ reactors, including the year in which construction began on each reactor.

Under construction’ for 42 years…
One of these is Watts Bar-2, on which construction began in 1972. Forty two years later, instead of classifying this as the economic failure it so clearly is, the IAEA continues to list it as ‘under construction’.

‘Under construction’ for 28 years…
Another two on the ‘under construction’ list are Khmelnitski-3 and Khmelnitski-4, both in the Ukraine, the home of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. These have been ‘under construction’ since 1986 and 1987 respectively. It is not difficult to imagine why these projects were abandoned, and yet, twenty eight years later, Mabhongo cheerfully considers them to be evidence for the nuclear renaissance story! Only nine are in the West, or eight if Watts Bar-2 is excluded.

Only 2 are in Europe…
and one of those is Olkiluoto-3, which was first planned to be completed in 2009 and is the subject of a bitter long running €2.6 billion legal battle between TVO, Areva and Siemens. Hardly a success story.

Over half of the seventy are in Russia and China, countries not famed for their transparency, safety or environmental standards.

Nuclear power is dying in the West
The truth is that nuclear power is dying out in the West, and is only surviving in countries where public opinion does not not carry much weight. A detailed analysis of the other ‘facts’ presented, such as the claim that the nuclear energy industry is experiencing growth, or that pebble bed modular reactor technology is catching on, will show that Mabhongo is being, to put it kindly, wildly optimistic.

Mabhongo works for NECSA, a public company which aims to extract profit from the nuclear industry.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to include the word ‘advertorial’ above any future article NECSA offers your paper.

First published here: