Nuclear energy has been found to be unsafe, bad for people and the environment. It is by no means a ‘clean’ energy, including in terms of CO2 emissions released throughout the whole fuel cycle. Furthermore, nuclear energy, when compared with renewable energy, is extremely expensive.
Renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources—such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat—which are renewable (naturally replenished). Renewable energy technologies include from solar power, wind power, hydroelectricity/micro hydro, biomass and biofuels for transportation.
Nuclear energy is NOT a clean source of energy
- The unspoken carbon footprint of nuclear energy
While people who support nuclear energy say that nuclear is a form of ‘clean’ energy with no greenhouse gas emission, nuclear energy does have a carbon footprint from its generation cycle that is often not calculated (OLINGO, 2016). The mining, milling, processing, conversion, enrichment and transportation of uranium fuel for reactors are all carbon-intensive processes, as are the construction and decommissioning of the plant. According to Earthlife Africa, nuclear power releases 3-4 times more CO2 per unit of energy produced than renewable energy does.
- Pollution and high-risk, long-lasting radioactive waste
Waste is generated at all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and enrichment to reactor operation, the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and the decommissioning of nuclear facilities.
Nuclear waste will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years – up to a million years. This also means someone has to pay to store that waste, and keep it safe, for that length of time (Kings, 2016; GreenPeace, 2016). Most concerning is that despite lots of money being invested in researching various disposal options, the nuclear industry and governments have failed to come up with a feasible and sustainable solution.
Uranium mining results in tailings which contain uranium, thorium, radium, polonium, and emit radon-222. Conversion plants, where uranium oxide is turned into uranium hexafluoride, generate another both solid and liquid waste (Thorpe, 2008). Contamination of local water supplies around uranium mines and processing plants has been documented in Brazil, Colorado, Texas, Australia, Namibia and many other sites. The long-term management cost of these dumps are generally left out of the current market prices for nuclear fuel and is estimated to be almost as high as the uranium cost itself.
More waste is generated at the nuclear facility in the form of high-level and low-level waste. High-level nuclear waste mostly in the form of spent fuel rods from reactors, in USA or Russia is wrapped in glass cement and lead and buried underground. However, most countries have not found a solution to storing their high-level nuclear waste and so they leave it next to the nuclear reactors – hoping to find a solution to clean or safely store the dangerous residue. In South Africa, low-level nuclear waste, such as contaminated clothing, is stored in metal and concrete drums at the Vaalputs waste site in the Northern Cape.
- Nuclear energy is NOT safe
Safe nuclear reactors do not exist. Accidents can happen at any nuclear reactor. Two examples are the accident at Fukushima in Japan (2011) where the nuclear plant was struck by an earthquake and tsunami; and the accident at Chernobyl in Russia (1986) where there was a steam explosion, followed by a fire at a nuclear reactor. The release of radiation has resulted in deaths, public health problems such as increased cancer epidemics from people that mine uranium or live close to uranium mines or nuclear facilities, the loss of livelihoods and homes for people living close to these dangerous places. In addition to accidents, nuclear plants are highly vulnerable to deliberate acts of sabotage and terrorist attack, making security a key concern.
‘The effects of uranium mining are disastrous.’ (Thorpe, 2008).
Uranium mining has a legacy of terrible health, water contamination and other pollution problems. Uranium mining and milling poisons watercourses and affects miners and surrounding communities, as seen at Tudor Shaft in South Africa. Radioactive exposure continues in the enrichment phase and also in the normal operation of a plant, due to both routine and accidental gaseous and liquid emissions of radioactive isotopes.
- A very costly source of energy
Nuclear energy is prohibitively expensive – especially when compared to renewable energy facilities. In South Africa, a 2016 study by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) found that nuclear energy will cost at best R1,17 per kilowatt hour (kWh) whereas renewable energy already costs R0,62 per kWh. These cost calculations do not include the costs of rehabilitation or disastrous accidents. In scenarios about the future energy mix for South Africa, the CSIR further indicates that an energy mix including 11,4% of nuclear energy capacity (as planned) would cost R90 billion more per year by 2040 than a scenario with only 2% of electricity generated from nuclear. Nuclear energy developments are difficult to finance as most development agencies and banks tend to not want to fund them – and from an economic and development perspective, the money spent on nuclear developments could be used to fund improved public transport, health and education in addition to renewable energy. Finally, experience shows that nuclear energy development projects always run behind schedule and are always costlier than the initial calculations.
- Nuclear energy is the inappropriate technology to meet the growing electricity demand
Besides the concerns that the African Climate Reality Project has raised above, nuclear proponents claim that only with nuclear energy can African countries meet baseload electricity demand and their growing need for electricity. These arguments are both untrue.
Baseload supply is the constant level of power needed. It can be met from a variety of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro provided that the grid is improved and expanded accordingly. This means that neither coal nor nuclear energy is indispensable to meet electricity needs. Renewable energies installations are quick to set up, thus providing a real solution to meeting the growing demand and ensuring access to electricity to all rapidly. They offer the opportunity to leapfrog ‘conventional’ energy sources which have proven harmful to the environment, to people’s health and are costlier than renewable energy.
- Nuclear energy uses lots of water
Nuclear energy uses more water than any other form of electricity generation – nuclear uses over 190 000L of water per Megawatt Hour (MWh) compared to wind which uses less than 1L of water per MWh. In a water scarce continent, this is a hugely important factor that needs to be taken into consideration.