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Nuclear adviser responds to his critics

Dec 30 2015 07:28
* Dr Kelvin Kemm

Cape Town – Since Dr Kelvin Kemm first wrote his opinion piece about the progress being made in South Africa’s nuclear procurement programme and the process to recommend Thyspunt in the Eastern Cape as the site to build the power station, many Fin24 users have sent in responses that range from supportive to critical.

READ: Fin24 readers speak out against nuclear energy

Here, Kemm responds to the critics of nuclear energy:

IT IS an interesting phenomenon how the topic of nuclear energy raises such emotion around the world.

Nuclear power also has more misunderstanding and disinformation associated with it than almost anything else. This really confuses the public. We then also find an interesting division in society that is important.

There are those who are confused and who really want to know the truth; but in contrast, there are those who are just anti-nuclear in principle and who have no interest in the truth. They just want to fight to win.

I have found that some of these anti-nuclear people seem disappointed to hear that no people died or were injured from nuclear radiation at Fukushima. They seem visibly upset when told that Fukushima was not a nuclear disaster. We then often get claims from them that there was massive other devastation from Fukushima anyway. The truth is that there was not.

The Fukushima reactors did absolutely nothing to the people or property of the area. Repeat - absolutely nothing. In contrast, the water from the tsunami smashed up houses and schools and other structures. We have all seen many TV clips of the tsunami striking buildings, cars, boats all the way up the coast.

With flights of fantasy, some people claim that fish all over the Pacific Ocean are dying from Fukushima radiation, and even that Fukushima radiation is harming people in Alaska and California in the US.

I often wonder if the people who say these things actually believe it themselves, or if they are just using the technique as a desperate tactic to scare people.

I must point out again that nuclear radiation is very easy to detect, in tiny quantities. The reason for this is that it actually emits a signal, like a cricket in its hole in the grass at night. It chirps out a signal, telling people exactly where it is.

While I was at university, tests were carried out to monitor the ocean currents flowing from Richards Bay down the east coast and past Durban. What they did was to pour about ten litres of mildly radioactive liquid into the sea off Richards Bay, and then some days later sat in a boat off Durban and measured the radiation flowing past the city.

Decades ago, when the Chinese carried out nuclear weapons tests, we used to wait in Pretoria, monitor the atmosphere and then watch the radiation from the nuclear weapons tests as it came over Pretoria about three days later.

If you go on holiday to Durban and you eat shellfish, like crayfish or prawns, and then two weeks later return to Pretoria and go to the radiation scanner at the nuclear medicine facility at the Steve Biko Hospital, the nurse there will be able to tell you which shellfish you ate in Durban, from reading the nuclear radiation pattern coming out of your body. The shellfish have distinctive nuclear radiation emissions.

So it is feasible to detect radiation from Fukushima over Alaska, if you have really fancy detection gear worth a couple of million. At the same time, you can also detect nuclear radiation coming from the sun and the stars. But to imply that Fukushima radiation detected in Alaska is dangerous to the people of Alaska is just pure nonsense.

South Africa is the world’s second largest exporter of nuclear medicine. Every two seconds somebody somewhere in the world is injected with nuclear medicine from South Africa. Every three hours a life is saved. Yes, doctors intentionally inject radioactive material into people to save lives. We have some of the best doctors in the world in this line of medicine.

This brings me to the irrational fear that some people have of high level nuclear waste. High level nuclear waste consists of used up nuclear fuel, which comes out of a nuclear reactor. This is thin metal tubes with uranium in them. The tubes are clustered together, for ease of handling, and clustered groups are called ‘fuel elements.’ Some people refer to them as ‘fuel rods’, but this term is obsolete.

An unused fuel element is no problem. You can sit next to one and eat your lunch. In fact, you can use it as your lunch table if you like. For good manners, you should put a tablecloth on it, because these fuel elements cost a lot of money...millions.

A used fuel element is a different matter. A used fuel element will kill you in seconds, if you just walk past it. You won’t even get a chance to finish your lunch. The reason is that some of the uranium that was in it before it was used in the reactor has now been split into other atoms, and it is these new atoms which are the really radioactive ones.

But to the human eye the new and used fuel elements look exactly the same. Nothing comes out of a reactor as radioactive gas or waste liquid, or ash, or dust, or bits of anything as the fuel is used.

Everything in the fuel element when it went in is still there inside it when it comes out, all neatly contained. All of the spent fuel elements are handled very professionally by trained people, who know exactly what they are doing.

A huge advantage of nuclear fuel is that there is so little of it. The entire annual waste from Koeberg will fit into one truck, so it is easy to keep track of it.

Some people run around in circles waving their hands like a windmill, wailing that it will be radioactive for hundreds of years, maybe even thousands. Quite frankly, so what if it is radioactive for hundreds or thousands of years. You just carefully place it in a secure storage facility.

Waste as safe as Tutankhamun's chamber

Typically this is a custom-built underground chamber, and the fuel elements just stay there - for just as long as the mummified pharaohs of Egypt have lasted in their pyramids. If Rameses, Seti, Cleopatra and Tutankhamun could build chambers that have lasted long enough, so can South African nuclear specialists.

Lying in a tank of water or in an underground chamber, the used fuel element is of no harm to anyone whatsoever. Of course it is constantly professionally cared for, just like we have been doing for half a century already.

Let me briefly mention nuclear cost. When you buy a litre of milk at the shop, you want to know how much it costs. You don’t ask the shop owner how much the dairy farmer paid to buy the cow. If one farmer pays twice as much for a cow as another farmer, that is fine, as long as he gets twice the milk from the cow, or better still more than twice as much.

The new South African nuclear power stations have been designed to produce electricity at the same price as coal-fired electricity. Right now, Koeberg nuclear power is Eskom’s cheapest electricity. That is exactly what Koeberg was designed to do, and also how the new nuclear plants are now designed.

A nuclear plant costs more to build initially, but then costs become less to run later. Overall the consumer wins. That is why we are building more nuclear. That is good, sound planning for the economy.

What will now happen is that South Africans will build the new nuclear power stations, in collaboration with foreign companies. Who do you think will drive the bulldozer, mix the concrete, build the walls, lay the pipes, run the electrical cables and much more? Will it be South Africans, or will we bring in Chinese, French or Russian bulldozer drivers or electricians? Come on, give it a bit of thought. South Africans will make money from the construction.

The companies and employees will pay tax. We will also make nuclear components for export, and thereby earn foreign exchange. We are already exporting locally fabricated nuclear components, so the export has started. We need to build it up. If we can export BMWs from Pretoria and Mercs from East London, then we can export nuclear grade pumps and valves and other stuff from Pretoria and PE.

Those people with spirited foresight will benefit. They will pass benefits on to others who they will employ, and who they will collaborate with.

So when you read anything about the imminent nuclear project, make sure that you have your brain in gear and both feet firmly on the ground. Those people who want to fly through the air hanging onto an umbrella, like Mary Poppins, are welcome to do so.

Well, maybe they are having fun but it isn’t real, it is fantasy. As far as I recall, nobody flew with Mary Poppins, she did it all by herself. It seems that the rest of the folks preferred to have the assurance of solid reality under their feet.

* Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is CEO of the Pretoria-based nuclear project management company, Nuclear Africa. He is a winner of the National Science and Technology Forum prestigious Lifetime Achievers Award for contributions to science and technology. He is also a member of the board of advisers of the public information organisation Go Nuclear, based in Colorado, US. In addition, he is an advisory board member of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow based in Washington DC, US.

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Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on Fin24 have been independently written by members of the Fin24 community. The views of users published on Fin24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent those of Fin24.

thyspunt  |  koeberg  |  nuclear  |  sa nuclear deal


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