NUKES: Lost cause, or the only cause that makes any sense?

OPPOSITION to nuclear power, for some, may seem like a lost cause. The deals made by South Africa’s former Nationalist government have produced a mammoth atomic energy programme, and now an export agreement with China. There is no doubt that the small Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), is consuming vast resources in an epic struggle to produce so-called ‘peaceful nuclear energy’, for both the continents of Africa and Asia.

How much of what is said about the PBMR is true? Are we becoming entangled in a giant conspiracy to cover-up, a covert nuclear weapons programme? Is atomic energy, ever really safe and peaceful? Are we actually providing a solution to climate change and global warming?

Questions such as these have intrigued the public ever since the PBMR project was announced shortly after South Africa’s atomic weapons programme was supposedly disbanded. For some the PBMR seemed like a good idea at the time, if only to keep our military scientists and covert engineers busy. However the project quickly escalated into a half-a-billion-a-year, rip-off industry that continues to consume an enormous amount of tax-payers money. According to Earthlife Africa, The ‘PBMR has already cost R2 billion (around US$330 million) and is expected to cost another R11.3 billion (US$1.8 billion). This could increase to as much as R25 billion (over US$4 billion) if decommissioning costs are included.’

This would not be such bad news if the South African government and its parastatels were actually providing a safe and reliable solution to climate change and global warming. In other words, an alternative to fossil fuels — Eskom/RED energy that is safe, clean and does not cost us the Earth. Unfortunately, nuclear energy is not the solution. Firstly, there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation. ‘Between 1940 and 1950 scientists laid down the first ‘safe’ levels of radiation: 150mSv per annum. The ‘safe’ level of exposure has continually been adjusted downwards (more dangerous) as more research into the dangers is carried out. By 1990, the annual acceptable level of exposure in South Africa was reduced to 20mSv for occupational exposure and 1mSv for the general public. (This limit is ten times higher than the limit laid down by the European Committee on Radiation Risk).’ (Source: Earthlife Africa).

Secondly, the solution to Climate Change and Global Warming, is not simply to reduce CO2 emissions by converting from coal-fired power to other forms of energy. The ‘lungs’ of the planet that help the atmosphere to ‘breathe’ will still have to be repaired the African Rainforests of the DRC and Congo that convert CO2 into O2 will still have to be replanted, and the ecosystems of our Southern Oceans that keep the atmospheric process running are still waiting to be restored. Millions of hectares of rainforest and the rights of the people living in them are under threat in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) says the Rainforest Network.

Furthermore, there are energy solutions available that tackle industrial CO2 emissions. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, ironically the same company supplying core components of the PBMR, manufactures one of the world’s “smallest home fuel cells” which runs off natural gas, produces hydrogen and catalyses enough electricity to run a decent home. Tokyo Gas has a pilot cogeneration scheme that supplies renewable “hybrid energy” to its citizens, via reform of the energy-from-gas systems already contemplated by Eskom.

The PBMR in no way tackles any of these pressing continental and global issues, and more significantly is out of step with progress towards a hydrogen economy. In fact, the key government project relies upon a cycle of contamination and eco-systems destruction that occurs at the production and mining of the uranium ore, to the milling and processing required to produce uranium oxide powder.

According to an Energy White Paper put out by the Dept of Minerals and Energy, ‘The sum of these activities is often referred to as the nuclear fuel cycle’ and includes:

* conversion of the oxide to gaseous uranium hexafluoride(hex);

* enrichment of hex in order to increase the proportion of usable uranium;

* fuel fabrication, during which enriched hex is reconverted to the oxide which is then packed into metal-clad fuel elements;

* utilisation of the fuel elements in a nuclear power plant where they remain until spent;

* subsequent on-site temporary storage of the spent fuel for the medium term; and finally

* long-term disposal.

To quote the Department further. ‘In South Africa, uranium is produced as a by-product of gold mining’. The issues at stake here, are really the mining industries complicity in apartheid bantustans, the exploitation of the earths natural resources, as well as health issues that effect workers, many of whom no choice but to work in the mines, as well as consumers of electricity, the general public who are demanding safe, peaceful, renewable, and cost-effective energy solutions.

On April 29, 2005, the Navajo Nation, an indigenous tribal people with limited self-government in the United State’s own Indian ‘bantustans’ signed into law, legislation effectively banning the nuclear industry The ‘Diné Natural Resources Protection Act (DNRPA) of 2005’, was passed by the Navajo Nation Council by a vote of 63-19 and states: “No person shall engage in uranium mining and processing on any sites within Navajo Indian Country.” This is despite the United State’s continued use of nuclear weapons and its insistence that atomic energy is being used for “peaceful purposes.”

The law based on the Fundamental Laws of the Diné, maintains: “certain substances in the Earth (doo nal yee dah) that are harmful to the people should not be disturbed, and that the people now know that uranium is one such substance, and therefore, that its extraction should be avoided as traditional practice and prohibited by Navajo law.”

The U.S. government has ironically used more than 2 200 tons of depleted uranium in its ongoing War in Iraq. Depleted Uranium is both chemically toxic and radioactive, and has been linked to Gulf War Syndrome, according to the Depleted Uranium Education Project. Half of all the 697,000 U.S. soldiers involved in the first 1991 Gulf war reported serious illnesses as a result of the use of depleted uranium. According to the American Gulf War Veterans Association, more than 30 percent of these soldiers are chronically ill and are receiving disability benefits from the Veterans Administration. The high occurrence of various symptoms related to the use of uranium has led to the illnesses being named Gulf War Syndrome.

The mining and milling of uranium ore threatens the health of workers and the communities surrounding such plants. According to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, uranium mining has been responsible for the largest collective exposure of workers to radiation. One estimate puts the number of workers who have died of lung cancer and silicosis due to mining and milling alone at 20 000.

In South Africa the production of the oxide and its marketing, is being undertaken by a company called Nufcor. Production during 1998 stood at just less than 1200 tons, generating an income of about R165 million, but plans unveiled recently by SXR Uranium One, who have applied for uranium prospecting rights in the Karoo signal an increase in local uranium mining. The Dept of Minerals and Energy says, “most of the product is exported directly, with small amounts being beneficiated at the AEC’s Pelindaba facility near the Hartebeespoort Dam, either for export or for subsequent purchase by companies such as Eskom.”

However, according to the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, ‘Mine workers are principally exposed to ionising radiation from radioactive uranium and the accompanying radium and radon gases emitted from the ore. Ionising radiation is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that extends from ultraviolet radiation to cosmic rays. This type of radiation releases high energy particles that damage cells and DNA structure, producing mutations, impairing the immune system and causing cancers.’

The Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia (ANAWA), says: ‘Uranium mining companies claim that they can minimise the risk to ‘acceptable levels’ by attention to proper ventilation of the shafts, and close monitoring of workers to radioactive exposure. However, each time the International Commission for Radiation Protection and other experts/organisations conduct a review on “safe” levels of radiation exposure, they conclude that low levels of ionising radiation are more dangerous than was previously decided. On average, these organisations have concluded that the actual danger is twice as bad as they thought twelve years before. This means that people are legally exposed to a certain dose of radiation one year and the next year they are told that the dose was far too high.’

It is widely agreed in the scientific community that there is no safe level of radiation exposure — ‘Because it can take more than twenty or more years for cancer produced by low levels of ionising radiation to become apparent, it is not easy to trace the cause. ‘ Think of having one or two X-rays per day, for breakfast, not even a doctor would recommend such a low-dose of radiation on a daily basis, let along a nutritionist.

After considerable pressure from groups such as Koeberg Alert and Earthlife Africa, South Africa became the first nation in the World to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. Without a concerted international campaign against the so-called ‘peaceful use’ of nuclear energy, it is clear that the South African government under president, FW de Klerk, would not have taken such a bold step, following a landmark historical announcement in 1993.

In fact the slogan: ‘forward to a non-racist, non-sexist, nuclear-free continent’ was taken up by the anti-apartheid movement during the campus protests of 1986 and, was endorsed at the very first South African National Conference on Environment and Development held at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town in 1991, under the rubric, ‘Ecologise Politics, Politicise Ecology’. The conference was hosted by the Cape Town Ecology Group and held under the auspices of the Western Cape Branch of the World Council on Religion and Peace.

Various resolutions taken at our recent Earth Summit, the WSSD held in Johannesburg in 2002 compel us to consider the implications of nuclear energy with regard to both the environment and human habitat. The Johannesburg Declaration reafirmed South Africa’s commitment to Agenda 21 goals for humanity, recognised the “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development” and affirmed the “vital role of the indigenous peoples in sustainable development” (25).

The issue of atomic power (its mining, milling, processing, and deployment either by medical science, the scientific industry, the military-industrial complex; and its final impact on the environment and the human population in terms of radioactive waste, nuclear fall-out and destruction of ecosystems) is critical to our own understanding of the Green movement and its relationship to issues affecting human rights and the global struggle for peace and democracy.

The nuclear issue, above all other issues, cuts across race, class and gender, linking the woman’s movement, the peace movement and the anti-apartheid movement, and is global in scope. If South Africa is to step back from the brink of atomic war and nuclear destruction, we must embrace the global struggles of peoples such as the Navajo and other movements around the world such as Australia’s ANAWA, all of whom have succeeded in banning the nuclear industry and its supposed ‘peaceful’ association with atomic weapons.


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  1. MITSUBISHI HEAVY INDUSTRIES, the same company supplying core companents of the PBMR is manufacturing a renewable energy solution that could revolutionise South African homes. The “world’s smallest home fuel cell” runs off natural gas, produces hydrogen and catalyses enough electricity to run a home


    Science & Technology
    Energy of the Future Could Be Available Next Year (July 23, 2003)

    The world’s smallest home fuel cell (Mitsubishi Heavy Industries)
    Competition to develop fuel-cell systems for the home is heating up, and some could be on the market as early as next year. The spread of such systems to generate electricity will help conserve fuel and could slow down environmental destruction. The government is giving full support to these moves and has established a target of meeting 4.5% of all household electricity needs with fuel cells by 2010.

    Smaller, Cheaper Systems
    Fuel cells for the home generate electricity and hot water when oxygen reacts chemically with hydrogen that has been extracted from natural gas and other fuels. Such cells for motor vehicles have already been developed, and the first fuel-cell-powered automobiles went on sale late last year.

    To make them feasible for home use, though, technical improvements were required to ensure a steady supply of electricity and to make the equipment small enough to be placed around the home. Another big bottleneck was cost. These obstacles have now been cleared to a considerable degree, opening the door to commercialization.

    An experimental system built by Nippon Oil has been operating at a model home in Yokohama since February. It measures 100 centimeters high, 90 cm across, and 50 cm deep and is small enough to be placed in front of the house. The world’s smallest model was later announced in early June by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries; it is 100 cm high, 60 cm across, and 30 cm deep. Both models are expected to go on sale in fiscal 2004 (April 2004 to March 2005) for around Â¥500,000 to Â¥600,000 (approximately $4,000 to $5,000 at Â¥120 to the dollar), placing them within the reach of ordinary households.

    The biggest advantage of fuel-cell systems is their eco-friendliness. They rely on a chemical reaction that is electrolysis in reverse, and the only byproducts are electricity and hot water. No carbon dioxide or nitrogen oxides are generated. Fuel-cell automobiles, moreover, are completely nonpolluting, since they use hydrogen that is stored in a tank.

    Storing hydrogen near people’s homes has raised safety concerns, however, and so household systems will generate the volatile gas from natural gas or kerosene. This process will result in emissions of carbon dioxide, but they will still be 20% less than that generated by thermoelectric power plants.

    Tokyo Gas, which also hopes to launch a household model on the market during fiscal 2004, estimates that if fuel cells are used to meet households’ entire hot water needs and two-thirds of their electricity needs, consumption of primary fuels can be reduced by 20% and emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides cut by 20% and 68%, respectively. An additional 20% savings is anticipated due to the elimination of energy loss during transmission.

    There is, moreover, the savings on actual energy costs due to lower consumption. A family of four using the world’s smallest home fuel-cell system developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries can expect to save Â¥50,000 ($417) annually on utility bills.

    State Support
    Governments in many countries are stepping up their support of fuel-cell systems. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has appropriated Â¥30.7 billion ($256 million) in the fiscal 2003 budget with the aim of generating 2.1 million kilowatts – equivalent to 4.5% of energy consumed by all households in Japan – with fuel cells (including those for industrial uses) by 2010. The ministry hopes, moreover, to raise the power generated to 10 million kW by 2020. In June, energy officials from around the world gathered in Tokyo for the World Gas Conference. In an address made at the opening ceremony, METI chief Takeo Hiranuma commented that with the rapid development of fuel cells, “society is on the threshold of a hydrogen-energy era.”

    Competition to develop commercial systems has intensified among companies in such industries as energy, electric machinery, and heavy machinery. Tokyo Gas and Nippon Oil fired the opening volley by announcing their intention to market home systems during fiscal 2004, and other gas suppliers and oil wholesalers have since joined the fray. Behind their enthusiasm lies the fact that the spread of home fuel-cell systems will contribute to higher sales of gas and kerosene as sources of hydrogen.

    Other companies are focusing their resources on areas in which they have technological expertise. Toshiba and NEC, for instance, are developing tiny fuel cells for use with their notebook computers, while Toray is preparing to launch a miniature cell for mobile phones.

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