When Eskom started looking at new nuclear plants to add to its generation fleet, it looked in detail at all the available designs, says the writer. Picture: NEIL OVERY
When Eskom started looking at new nuclear plants to add to its generation fleet, it looked in detail at all the available designs, says the writer. Picture: NEIL OVERY

ENERGY Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s announcement that the procurement of 9.6GW of nuclear power will begin at the end of September demonstrates the government’s commitment to its nuclear plans despite opposition.

The opposition has almost exclusively focused on the potential financial costs of the procurement as they relate to the build of nuclear plants, and on the relative costs of electricity produced by nuclear power compared to other forms of generation.

Surprisingly little has been said about the substantial additional costs of managing the radioactive waste that will be produced by new nuclear plants.

This waste comes in three forms, categorised 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.

These spent fuel rods contain extremely high levels of radioactivity in the form of uranium and plutonium, which remain lethally radioactive for tens of thousands of years. High-level waste accounts for 95% of all radioactivity in waste produced by a nuclear power station.

Koeberg produces about 32 tonnes of spent fuel a year; over its predicted 40-year lifetime, it will produce 1,280 tonnes of high-level waste.

The government is looking to build between six and eight new reactors.

Assuming that only six are built, and that each produces between 25 and 30 tonnes of high-level waste a year, they will produce about 200 tonnes of high-level waste per year.

If they each operate for 40 years, about 8,000 tonnes of high-level waste will have to be managed.

An urgent question arises: what does SA intend doing with this extremely long-lived and extraordinarily dangerous 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, 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.

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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 huge 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 R400bn over a 26-year period.

France, the only country that reprocesses nuclear fuel on a significant scale, has only been able to do so because of a huge subsidy from the state-owned energy company, EDF.

Despite initial hopes, a large quantity of highly radioactive waste that still needs disposing remains after processing. There are also serious security considerations, because reprocessing high-level waste results in the creation of separated plutonium, which could be stolen and worked into a simple, dirty bomb. The very existence of separated plutonium eases 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 high costs associated with running them and the fact that they still produce significant quantities of high-level waste that needs disposal. Due to these chronic limitations, most have closed down.

The Kalkar fast reactor in Germany, which cost R100bn to build, never operated and was sold at a huge 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".

In 2015 Eskom unsurprisingly confirmed that the reprocessing of high-level nuclear waste "was not economically viable". The only other option, aside from ludicrous suggestions such as firing it into space, is to store the waste. But safely storing something that remains radioactive for geologic time frames is a cold call that may not be possible.

The US has tried, and after spending the equivalent of R1.4-trillion, 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 being built, despite significant opposition.

Similar options are being considered in the UK, France and Sweden.

No one knows, however, if waste can be stored safely underground for tens of thousands of years.

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THE National Nuclear Regulator stated in 2001 that the Vaalputs Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility (100km southeast of Springbok in the Northern Cape), which accepts low-and medium-level waste, "may be" a suitable site for an underground repository for SA’s high-level waste. However, it also noted that SA’s "limited nuclear programme" meant the construction of such an expensive depository may not be necessary.

In 2008, legislation was passed to create the National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute, tasked with managing all of SA’s radioactive waste. It was eventually constituted in 2014 and was almost immediately caught up in a scandal involving allegations of mismanagement.

To date, the institute appears to have done absolutely nothing, but recently advertised a tender for office space.

Given Eskom’s rejection of reprocessing and the fantastic costs associated with building an underground repository, it stores high-level waste above ground 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 buying more casks at R30m each to put into a new storage building.

However, there are substantial problems and dangers with 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, and then the high-level waste will need to be moved again — and 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 it on site were revealed dramatically by the Fukushima disaster of 2011, which resulted, and continues to result in, tonnes of highly radioactive water leaking from its damaged storage pools.

Such storage also presents a potential target for terrorists. On-site storage has been rejected in the US as an unsafe and inadequate response to the problem of high-level radioactive waste.

If SA does indeed build six or eight new reactors, in the interests of public safety and environmental health, the government 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 trillions of rand needed to do that will come from, are questions that remain entirely unanswered as the government forges ahead with its procurement plans.

Overy is a freelance environmental researcher.