(Nuclear) power to the people
The world’s population is ever increasing and, along with it, our growing need for energy … JACO DE KLERK discovers that nuclear energy is the most prominent viable solution to a sustainable future
Anyone who was a child, or had children, during the 90s would certainly recognise the name Captain Planet – an elemental warrior fighting villains polluting the planet, in an American animated environmentalist television programme.
In the series, Duke Nukem, a doctor who changed himself into a radioactive mutant – representing the misuse of nuclear power – is the only eco-villain able to defeat the environmental crusader Captain Planet without help from other “baddies”.
This shows just how much nuclear energy was feared and misunderstood, with the anti-nuclear parties having the slogan “radiation kills”, as people fear onsite radioactive exposure at nuclear power plants …
But what are the threats to human health imposed by nuclear energy?
In the TV programme Duke Nukem has a cowardly accomplice, Leadsuit, so named after the radiation suit he constantly wears to protect himself from Nukem’s radioactive aura. He puts up with the nuclear threat because he believes that he will rule the world alongside his boss when Nukem brings about the nuclear age.
But this can’t be further from the truth, as a nuclear age will be the exact opposite of evil and a lead-suit is overkill, as the radiation levels at nuclear power plants aren’t at all fatal.
Andrew Kenny, an independent engineer and energy commentator who has worked in the industry for 16 years – including at Eskom, both in its coal and nuclear sections – comments on the safety of nuclear plants: “If you look at the number of accidents that killed five people or more, nuclear has had only one such incident – the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine,” he says.
The severity of this disaster can’t be downplayed and its effects are still being investigated, but nuclear reactors and power plants have come a long way to ensure that another “Chernobyl” never happens again.
“But if you look at the total deaths directly related to nuclear and wind power, from the inception of these two forms of energy to 2010, nuclear has killed about 63 people and wind about 73,” Kenny points out. “So wind energy has actually led to more deaths.”
He adds that nuclear power was put through an astounding test in 2011 when a tsunami hit the Fukushima power plant in Japan. “The natural disaster killed over 15 000 people and disturbed the country’s infrastructure which made rescue efforts very difficult, but nobody was killed by the radiation leakages.”
He explains that the average radiation exposure to people in Japan was one millisievert (with one sievert carrying a 5,5 percent chance of eventually developing cancer) and the highest being 23 millisievert (ms).
But these are just numbers if they’re not put into perspective. “No damage to people has ever been seen with exposures to nuclear radiation below 100 ms,” Kenny points out. Nuclear power plant workers are allowed to be exposed to 20 ms per year, but they experience only one ms per annum
Cape Town’s background radiation is about 2,5 ms per year and Ramsar’s Talesh Mahalleh district in Iran (the most radioactive inhabited area in the world) can reach 260 ms. “This is more than ten-times higher than the amount of radiation that nuclear power plant workers may be exposed to and, at this stage, no damage or ill health effects have ever been noticed in Iran,” Kenny points out. “So the chance of people suffering from the exposure they experienced at Fukushima is extremely low.”
It seems nuclear energy isn’t the evil energy source that Duke Nukem portrayed it to be.
Can the world really afford not to use nuclear energy?
Dr Rob Adam, president of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa, says that the World Energy Outlook, which is generally published every year by the International Energy Association, states that the demand for electricity will grow over 70 percent by 2035. This equates to 32 000 terawatts an hour.
“Energy-related CO2 emissions will increase from an estimated 31,2 gigatonnes in 2011 to 37 gigatonnes in 2035, pointing to a long-term average temperature increase of 3,6°C,” says Adam.
So there is a dire need for more and cleaner energy. “Renewable energy is being placed at the top, taking a huge chunk of the planned future electricity production,” says Rob Jeffrey, MD of Econometrix. “But this is very expensive electricity and there are huge problems with intermittency, so it can’t be used for baseload power.”
Coal on the other hand is great for baseload power, but it is the major emitter of CO2 in the electricity production sectors.
Kenny points out that nuclear is the most economic source of electricity generation. “France, which gains about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear, has the cheapest prices in Europe and Denmark, with the world’s highest fraction of wind electricity, has Europe’s highest electricity prices.”
But the capital costs of nuclear power are high. “Almost every power station in the past was a once off, as they kept on changing the design and then got into problems with the regulator,” Kenny points out. “But a consistent programme in nuclear build will lead to the same design being repeated, keeping regulations under control, which will lead to far lower capital costs.”
He adds: “If you look at the price of a kilowatt an hour of electricity from a nuclear power station over its life, the costs levels out, because one nuclear power station provides huge amounts of electricity and has a long lifespan.”
And the fuel for nuclear generation is also abundant. “The International Energy Agency says that there is enough uranium in the world to last another 218 years at present levels of consumption,” says Kenny. “But this is just scratching the surface. Because the price of uranium is low, mining companies are hardly bothering to look for it.”
He adds that the sources in the oceans are also being replaced by volcanic activity and rivers flowing into the seas. “So for practical reasons it becomes a renewable source of energy.”
If we look even further ahead, thorium (a slightly radioactive metal some three times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than uranium) can be converted into a usable source for nuclear power generation. It is, therefore, possible to imagine thorium ultimately yielding three times more energy than all the uranium in the world, enabling indefinite production of nuclear energy.
“If you look at the total costs of running nuclear power stations, the fuel itself makes up a small fraction of the total costs,” adds Kenny. “So if the price of uranium goes up, it is not going to have too much of an effect on the price of nuclear electricity.”
So nuclear power would seem to be the answer the world’s growing energy needs, as it delivers safe, cheap, reliable and renewable energy … Duke Nukem should mutate himself into something else as nuclear energy is an ally to the world.