IMAGINE if our President were to announce that he had a solution to our energy crisis. From tomorrow we will start burning Platinum to make Electricity. Would you support a costly programme, with only 1% efficiency, and a huge waste problem? This is precisely what the Pressurised Light Water Reactor (PLWR) punted by Dr Kelvin Kemm, CEO of Nuclear Africa, represents. Costly 1950s technology, with so many problems and design elements which can go wrong that you have less than a 1/20 chance there will be an accident if you build one.
You have merely to watch any promotion video for the next generation reactor project known as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) to see why old PLWRs are inherently unsafe.
With so many mechanical issues which can go wrong, including hydrogen build-up which resulted in the Japanese Daichi Reactor exploding at Fukushima, followed by decay and meltdown of all the cores, which became unstable once the safety mechanisms failed. LFTR claims to have none of these weaknesses, since it uses liquid fuel not solid fuel, is not pressurised, and has a totally different decay chain and fuel cycle.
Unlike PLWR which is inherently unsafe, dependent upon human controls and core intervention 24/7, advocates of LFTR claim that if power to the plant operation is ever cut, only a refrigeration plug kept artificially frozen would melt, then the liquid fuel would merely drain into holding tanks and the plant would shut down with no possibility of a core meltdown. The economics of burning rocks (thorium is abundant and found in most rocks on the planet) instead of burning scarce metal which is mined and processed into solid fuel pellets, and produced by the nuclear industry in a scheme representing a Gillette-Razer Blade fuel model, are also key features.
As an environmentalist opposed to nuclear energy for over 25 years, I still have my reservations, since LFTR is basically a molten-salt reactor in which Thorium and Uranium are dissolved into Fluoride. I am fascinated however, by the claim that it could solve some of the waste problems which characterise conventional reactors, since it is far more efficient, and also capable of reprocessing the waste created by the PLWR industry.
As the evangelists claim, burning Uranium is like burning Platinum, and with less than 1% efficiency, the old technology from the 1950s is really a dead-end road, considered useful only because it creates transuranic products such as plutonium which the military find interesting. LFTR cannot produce such weapons-grade material. Which is a big plus so far as proliferation is concerned. There are however some short-lived fission products such as Protactinium* to worry about, but none of the security problems inherent to producing elements above U235, which are man-made and do not exist in nature.
LFTR according to its pundits, is also capable of producing bismuth and molybdenum used for medical purposes, these are alpha particle emitters as opposed to beta-particle emitters.
As an anti-nuclear activist I do not think LFTR has solved all the safety problems, and the design certainly needs a lot more debate and consideration. But lets take a look at the kind of plant Kemm wants to import, based on the designs which produced Koeberg and Pelindaba:
Koeberg, South Africa’s only commercial PLWR suffers from ongoing emissions of radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90 and caesium-137 which exceed European Safety guidelines. Local safety standards had to be lowered by the apartheid government in order to accommodate the emissions from the plant. Bioaccumulation of isotopes and contamination of nearby crops are a major health risk when it comes to wheat, fish and dairy. The isotopes end up in human bone, causing cancer of the blood.
On 11 November 2005 the plant underwent an emergency shut down following an incident related to power controls within the plant. The incident is thought to be a routine SCRAM.
Then on the evening of the 23 November 2005, a routine inspection of the backup safety system revealed a below-specification concentration of an important chemical, which had resulted in a controlled shutdown of the reactor.
On Christmas Day 2005 an 8 cm (3 in) loose bolt found its way into the rotor of Unit 1, causing damage to some of the 105 bars that line the device, and putting the generator out of action for months.
In 2010, 91 workers at Koeberg were contaminated by Cobalt-58 , evidence of breeding.
South Africa’s non-commercial nuclear industry has had its fair share of emergencies.
The deaths of workers such as Harold Daniels at Pelindaba, who died after fighting a 1996 ‘radiation fire’, have never been adequately explained, the full facts were never investigated, despite promises from government. On 6 March 2009, a leak of radioactive gases from Pelindaba was reported by NECSA. Abnormal levels of gamma radiation associated with Xenon and Krypton gases (two gases which were problems at Chernobyl) were detected, causing an evacuation of staff and an emergency to be declared
The issue of poor communities exposed to long-lived radioactive waste from dumping by the industry, including communities of Kommegas and Namaqualand, continue to mar the claims and promises of clean energy made by persons such as Kamm.
South Africa wasted some R10bn on a failed PBMR reactor programme, before canning the project, a highly expensive and costly white-elephant, dependent upon the taxpayer for annual bail-outs and the final right-down. Now the Zuma administration is contemplating embarking on yet another costly nuclear exercise, without so much as a safety and cost-benefit inquiry. The numbers do not add up.
Renewables will always be cheaper and safer, beating non-renewables over time. The same may be said of LFTR.
Nuclear Energy is not the Solution.
*Other problems encountered in early breeder reactor tests, are tritium and corrosion.