Cape Town – A global nuclear energy expert is baffled by South Africa’s interest in old technology for its nuclear energy programme, when reactors that consume their own waste are available.
Prescription for the Planet author Tom Blees told Fin24 in an exclusive four-part studio interview this week that pressurised (or light) water reactors consume about 60% of the 1% potential energy in uranium.
This is the technology Koeberg Nuclear Power Station uses in Cape Town and is the same technology South Africa wants to procure for its 9 600 MW nuclear build programme. However, Blees said there is a far more advanced reactor that is operational and available to the country: metal fuel fast reactors.
WATCH PART 1: Is nuclear energy old fashioned?
Blees said metal fuel fast reactors consume about 100% of the same potential in uranium, “so they are over 150 times more efficient when it comes to fuel”, he said.
“Metal fuel fast reactors is a fantastic technology that consumes nuclear waste as fuel, so all the spent nuclear fuel that you have left from your current reactor can be used for fuel on that one,” he said.
“They can close the fuel cycle so that you don’t end up with long-lived nuclear waste,” he said. “They can burn up the elements that are radioactive for long periods of time. It basically solves the nuclear waste problem. At the same time, it extracts (a) vast amount of energy.
“The cost of fuel is essentially nil when it comes to using fast reactors,” Blees said, adding that they are easier to run than light water reactors.
Blees said nuclear engineers and physicists that he has engaged with around the world all agree that metal fuel fast reactors are the future of nuclear energy. However, so far only Russia is using this technology.
Russia’s BN-600 reactor is a sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor that has been operating since 1980, while the larger BN-800 started operating there in 2014, while the BN-1200 has just started being built.
Blees was in South Africa to discuss the history of nuclear and show the acclaimed film about nuclear energy, Pandora’s Promise, but said he did not hold discussions with policy makers, something he hopes to do next year.
“Frankly, I’m not privy to the discussions between Russia and South Africa and whether the subject of fast reactors has come up, but I know that Russia is selling a couple of BN-800s to China,” he said.
Russia is one of several vendor countries that have signed inter-governmental agreements with South Africa ahead of the bid process to build 9 600 MW of nuclear power.
WATCH PART 2: Talking about nuclear energy in the context of SA
WATCH PART 3: Does the world really need nuclear energy
WATCH PART 4: Is nuclear really safe? Surely it just takes one disaster to ruin Cape Town or St Francis Bay?
WATCH: Pandora's Promise trailer
"Can you be an environmentalist and pro-nuclear?" author Stewart Brand asks in the film. "In light of climate change, can you be an environmentalist and not be pro-nuclear?"