Where Will SA Put Lethal Nuclear Waste?

This opinion piece appeared in the Business Day on 20 September 2016.

Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s recent announcement that the procurement of 9.6GW of nuclear power will begin at the end of September 2016 demonstrates the Government’s commitment to its nuclear plans despite widespread opposition from a variety of roleplayers. This opposition has almost exclusively focussed on the potential financial costs of the procurement as they relate the actual build itself, and on the ongoing relative costs of electricity produced by nuclear power in comparison to other forms of electricity generation, such as renewables. Surprisingly little has been said about the substantial additional costs of managing the radioactive waste which will be produced by new nuclear plants.

Radioactive waste from nuclear power plants comes in three forms categorized according to health risk. While low and intermediate-level wastes present considerable dangers to humans, the major problem of waste disposal at nuclear power plants relates to how to effectively dispose of so-called high-level waste, largely in the form of spent fuel rods. Spent fuel rods contain extremely high-levels of radioactivity in the form of uranium and plutonium, which remains lethally radioactive for tens of thousands of years (high-level waste accounts of 95% of all radioactivity in waste produced by a nuclear power station).

Koeberg produces approximately 32 tonnes of spent fuel a year, meaning that over its predicted 40 year lifetime it will produce 1280 tonnes of high-level waste. The Government is looking to build between 6 and 8 new reactors. Assuming that only 6 are built, and that each produces between 25 and 30 tonnes of high-level waste per year, South African nuclear power stations will produce approximately 200 tonnes of high-level waste per year. If they each operate for 40 years, approximately 8000 tonnes of high-level waste will have to be managed in South Africa.  Given this, an urgent question arises: what does South Africa intend doing with this extremely long-lived and extraordinarily dangerous high-level waste?

Since the operation of the first commercial nuclear power station at Windscale in England in 1956, the problem of what to do with high-level nuclear waste has not been solved. Historically two options have been mooted: reprocessing and underground storage.

Initially it was hoped that waste would be reprocessed and recycled back into the reactors themselves, the so-called ‘closed fuel cycle’. Reprocessing plants were built in a number of countries, but they have been dogged by technical problems (some relating to serious radioactive leakages) and have been spectacularly expensive to operate. Most have now closed down. For example, the UK’s THORP reprocessing plant, built at great cost in the 1990s, is due to close in 2018, leaving a decommissioning nightmare estimated to take at least 100 years to complete at massive cost. In Japan, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, which was due to open in 2008 at a cost of R100bn, has yet to open and has so far cost nearly $400bn over a 26 year period. France, the only country that currently (for now) reprocesses nuclear fuel on a significant scale, has only been able to do so because of huge government subsidy support via the state-owned energy company EDF.

Reprocessing also presents other problems. Despite initial hopes, a large quantity of highly radioactive waste remains after processing, which still needs to be disposed of. In addition, there are serious security considerations with the reprocessing of high-level waste because it results in the creation of separated plutonium. This plutonium could conceivably be stolen and worked into a simple, dirty bomb. In addition, the very existence of separated plutonium eases the process of nuclear proliferation.

Nuclear proponents often champion so-called ‘fast reactors’ as a different form of reprocessing that could solve the waste problem. These reactors are designed to burn more plutonium than they breed. But after 50 years of research and vast expense not one has operated commercially due to the incredible costs associated with running them and the fact that they still produce significant quantities of high-level waste that needs to be disposed of. Due to these chronic limitations most have now also closed down. For example, the Kalkar fast reactor in Germany, which cost R100bn to build, never operated and was sold at a staggering loss in 1995 and converted into an amusement park. The US National Academy of Sciences stated in 2008 that the reprocessing of nuclear fuel makes nuclear energy ‘more expensive, more proliferation-prone, and more controversial’.

Last year Eskom unsurprisingly confirmed that the reprocessing of high-level nuclear waste ‘was not economically viable’. Given this, the only other option, aside from ludicrous ones such as firing it into space, is to store the waste. But safely storing something that remains lethally radioactive for geologic timeframes is an extraordinary undertaking, and one that may not be possible.

The US has tried, and after spending the equivalent of R1.4tn, has given up. In 2002, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was identified as the site for an underground repository for high-level waste. Despite tens of thousands of pages of scientific research and countless investigations no agreement has been reached about whether it is safe to store high-level nuclear waste underground. The site was closed in 2011 by the Obama Administration. In Onkalo, Finland, a R75bn underground repository is currently being built despite significant opposition. Similar options are currently being considered in the United Kingdom, France and Sweden. No one knows, however, if waste can be safely stored underground for hundreds of years, let alone tens of thousands of years as continuing scientific controversy over the burying of high-level waste attests. Michael Madsen’s film Into Eternity startlingly reveals the inherent unknowns.

We need to return to our earlier question: what does South Africa intend doing with high-level radioactive waste?

The National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) here in South Africa stated in 2001 that the Vaalputs Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility (100 km south east of Springbok in the Northern Cape), which accepts low and medium-level waste, ‘may be’ a suitable site for an underground repository for South Africa’s high-level waste. However, it also noted that South Africa’s ‘limited nuclear programme’ meant that the construction of such an expensive depository may not be necessary. This was before, of course, the current procurement proposals.

In 2008 legislation was passed to create the National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute (NRWDI), tasked with managing all of South Africa’s radioactive waste. The NRWDI was eventually constituted six years later in 2014, and almost immediately caught-up in a scandal involving allegations of mismanagement. To date the NRWDI appears to have done absolutely nothing. It does not even appear to have an office, if a recently advertised NWRDI tender for office space is anything to go by.

Given Eskom’s rejection of reprocessing and the fantastic costs associated with building an underground repository, Eskom, in common with other nuclear energy producers world-wide, stores high-level waste aboveground in cooling pools and reinforced casks. But because there is nowhere else to put the waste, Koeberg is running out of space in its cooling ponds (due to be full by the end of 2018) and Eskom is currently purchasing more casks at R30m each to put into a new storage building.

But there are substantial problems and dangers with both ‘long-term’ cooling pond storage and dry cask storage. As Eskom’s planning application revealingly notes, these casks are only a ‘temporary, interim’ measure. They are designed to last no more than 60 years (a lifetime disputed by many), after which time the high-level waste will need to be moved yet again. And remember, this is a form of waste that needs to be safely contained for at least 10 000 years. Most worrying, however, is that nuclear power station sites are not designed to store high-level nuclear waste. The dangers of storing high-level radioactive waste on site were dramatically revealed by the Fukushima disaster of 2011 which resulted, and continues to result in, tonnes of highly radioactive water leaking from its damaged storage pools. It is not only natural disasters that present a risk to on-site storage because such unplanned storage also presents a potential target for terrorist attack. As Dr William Alley has shown in Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High Level Nuclear Waste, the dangers of on-site storage are such that it has been rejected in the United States as an unsafe and inadequate response to the problem of high-level radioactive waste.

If South Africa does indeed build 6 or 8 new reactors, in the interests of public safety and environmental health, it will have to find, at the very least, a 10 000 year solution to the problem of high-level radioactive waste. How it will do so, and where the billions upon billions of rands necessary to do so will come from, are questions that  remain entirely unanswered as the government forges ahead with its procurement plans.

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