Important questions of safety the pro-nuclear lobby dare not ignore

This piece appeared in the Business Day newspaper on 17 October 2017. It can be seen here.

Good training can help prevent accidents, yet the complexity of systems will at some stage outrun controls, writes Neil Overy

Despite widespread opposition to the proposal to build new nuclear energy capacity in SA, from academia, civil society, labour unions, economists, corporate SA and just about everyone aside from some in government and the usual industry insiders, the Department of Environmental Affairs has quietly approved the construction of up to three new nuclear reactors at the Koeberg site.

While many potential hurdles still need to be overcome by the pro-nuclear lobby before silver shovels and asinine grins appear at Koeberg as the first sods are turned, now is perhaps as good a time as any to return to the issue of the safety of nuclear power.

Responding to the partial meltdown of reactor 2 at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, sociologist Charles Perrow wrote a seminal paper entitled Normal Accident at Three Mile Island. In this paper, written well before Chernobyl and Fukushima, he argues that large-scale nuclear accidents are inevitable, cannot be prevented and will happen. They are inevitable because they are “unanticipated”.

Perrow writes that it is not feasible to design or build a highly complex system like a nuclear power station where parts are tightly coupled in such a way that anticipates all possible eventualities. While safety systems and good training help prevent accidents, the complexity of such systems will inevitably, at some stage, at a particular nuclear power station somewhere in the world, outrun controls.

This is exactly what happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Both accidents prove Perrow’s thesis.

At Chernobyl, an operator, when confronted with unanticipated reactor information, incorrectly initiated an emergency shutdown that caused the explosion.

At Fukushima, designers had not anticipated the loss of power needed for cooling from both the national grid and back-up diesel generators.

The nuclear industry responds to these accidents by claiming that action can be taken to ensure that they will not happen again. In the case of Chernobyl, staff will receive better training. In the case of Fukushima, back-up diesel generators will be properly protected.

Risk expert Ulrich Beck describes the risk presented by nuclear power stations as “an institutionalised scandal” because the consequences of major accidents at nuclear power plants are, as we now know, catastrophic.

Even when accidents do happen, the industry does its best to downplay the consequences. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the main lobby group for the industry, claims that no more than 4,000 people have died or will die from the Chernobyl accident — despite overwhelming evidence from peer-reviewed research that the figure is likely to be much higher. The Russian Academy of Sciences puts the figure at 200,000.

Proponents of nuclear power in SA regularly inform the media that nobody has died from the nuclear accident in Fukushima. Yet peer-reviewed research estimates the likely deaths from the accident at 1,000.

The figure is significantly lower than Chernobyl for three reasons. The release of radioactivity was a 10th that of Chernobyl; the Japanese authorities evacuated people from the vicinity of the plant relatively efficiently and quickly; and potentially contaminated food was successfully interdicted.

In reality, however, we are unlikely to know how many people died as the result of these accidents. This is because cancer deaths, which may be attributable to the accidents but will simply be recorded as “natural” deaths, can occur years if not decades later.

In addition, there is no scientific or medical consensus on the long-term consequences of low doses of radiation on the body.

All we can say for sure is that the amount of exposure deemed “safe” has been reduced time and again over decades and what is considered acceptable today can become unthinkable tomorrow.

There is also a problem in reducing the effect of nuclear accidents to a simple, technocratic numbers game. Simply estimating deaths says nothing about illness, both physical and mental. Those who die from the accidents also suffer from these illnesses before they die. Both Chernobyl and Fukushima have had considerable, and often unacknowledged, effects on mental health.

About 330,000 people were evacuated after Chernobyl, while 150,000 were evacuated after Fukushima. Peer-reviewed research shows that trauma (splitting up families, the disintegration of communities, the loss of homes, changes in schooling etc) related to these evacuations has resulted in increased mental health problems, including a significantly increased incidence of suicide.

Eskom has established three “emergency planning zones” around Koeberg in its integrated Koeberg nuclear emergency plan. These are in the form of concentric circles 5km, 16km and 80km from the power station (not that radiation moves in concentric circles!).

According to the plan, all three zones could be subject to evacuation and relocation. It’s worth going to Google Earth and drawing these circles yourself and thinking about what this plan actually means.

Proponents of nuclear power in SA claim the death rate from nuclear power should be contextualised. They point to the fact that thousands die on SA’s roads every year. But this is a spurious strawman argument. That we have an appalling high death rate on our roads doesn’t somehow neutralise the dangers of nuclear power.

We don’t stop worrying about the murder rate because we have so many deaths on the roads.

In addition, most people cannot choose not to travel on our roads, but as a society, we can choose not to have nuclear power — renewable energy is far cheaper and far safer.

Advocates of nuclear power also point to the toxic legacy of coal and the deaths it undoubtedly causes year after year. But this is another strawman argument. Coal is not the suggested alternative to nuclear power, renewables are.

Getting back to numbers, we should also consider the shorter-term costs of decontamination after nuclear accidents, and the longer-term economic costs.

A recent meta-analysis of direct and indirect financial costs of the Chernobyl accident estimates a total cost to date of $700bn.

Japan has estimated the costs of decontamination and compensation around Fukushima at $250bn.

These figures need to be contextualised — SA’s annual GDP is $350bn, government spending in 2016 amounted to $112bn.

The nuclear agreement with Rosatom that was recently thrown out by the high court indemnified Rosatom from any financial liability for accidents during the life of any power station it built in SA.

We should also not forget the unique problem of high-level nuclear waste.

This waste remains lethal for geologic timeframes — 100,000 years — and needs to be stored safely away from humans. The financial costs are likely to be significant.

To date, the US government has spent $16bn of an estimated $96bn on a high-level waste facility in Nevada, the construction of which is stalled because of concerns over its efficacy.

What does SA intend to do with its existing high-level waste, sitting in overpacked cooling pools at Koeberg? What are the costs likely to be? How can we keep it safe for 100,000 years? These are all questions that remain unanswered.

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