Part four | The slow violence of SA’s nuclear waste

The final part of this four-part story outlines the futility of storing waste with radioactive time frames, arguing that nuclear energy should be abandoned in favour of renewables.

In a 2005 presentation to the Parliamentary portfolio committee for minerals and energy about the new Radioactive Waste Management Policy and Strategy for the Republic of South Africa, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy noted that while temporarily storing the waste in casks was the least costly option, it was also a “do nothing” policy because it was not actually a solution to the problem of high-level waste.

The department stated that storing the waste in casks may “burden future generations”. This rare moment of candour draws attention to the fact that dry-cask storage can never be anything more than a very temporary stop-gap measure until – or if – a long-term solution is found.  

Even if the casks do last 100 years, this timespan needs to be contrasted with the hundreds of thousands of years nuclear waste remains dangerous. When these time frames are considered, cask storage is rendered somewhat meaningless. This point is well understood by Eskom, which notes in its Radioactive Waste Management Plan for Koeberg that “storage is by definition an interim measure, and the term ‘interim storage’ would therefore be appropriate only to refer to short-term temporary storage when contrasting this with the longer-term fate of the waste”. 

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Proponents of nuclear power will say, however, that there already is a permanent storage option, and that is the disposal of high-level waste in deep geological repositories. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy has supported this idea, stating its preferred solution to the problem of high-level waste is a deep geological repository (DGR). In its most recent report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management, the government notes that “a deep geological repository for South Africa is planned to be operational by 2065”. This DGR, which is allegedly to be designed and operated by the National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute (NRWDI), will dispose of the waste previously stored at a centralised interim storage facility (CISF).  

The description of a DGR given in this report hints at the enormous complexity of such a project. It states that a DGR uses “a system of engineered and natural barriers at a depth up to several hundred metres in a geologically stable formation”. Several nations have pursued DGR as a means to store high-level waste. 

Burying the problem

The United States approved a DGR within Yucca Mountain in Nevada in 2002 at a total cost, estimated by the US Department of Energy in 2007, of nearly $100 billion. Less than 10 years later, but not before $15 billion had been spent, Yucca Mountain was abandoned. The project was controversial from the start, with scientific opinion sharply divided on the suitability of Yucca Mountain for deep disposal. It was also vigorously opposed by residents of Nevada and the state government. Since the project was abandoned, high-level waste continues to accumulate in more than 3 000 casks in the US, and there is now 10 000 tonnes more than the entire proposed 70 000 tonne capacity of Yucca Mountain. All this high-level waste still needs to be permanently disposed of.

The US does operate one DGR in New Mexico called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. This DGR, which opened in 1999, accepts high-level waste from US nuclear weapons programmes and cost $19 billion. It too has been plagued with controversy. In 2014, two accidents, a fire and an explosion in a waste canister, exposed 22 workers to radiation and resulted in the site being closed for two years. The closure and repairs cost over $2 billion.

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Plans are more advanced in Finland, which is building a DGR called Onkolo. Started in 2004, the DGR is expected to receive its first batch of high-level waste in 2023, which it will bury 500m below ground within its 42km network of tunnels. The project is expected to cost at least $6 billion. France has estimated the overall cost of its DGR, which it is proposing to build at Bure, at $45 billion. It has already spent more than $7 billion on a test site. 

The massive costs alone should be enough to set alarm bells ringing in South Africa. This is not, however, the only problem with DGRs. The very idea that we can ensure that high-level waste can be stored safely underground for at least 100 000 years, as is proposed by Onkolo, or one million years, as was proposed at Yucca Mountain, is patently absurd. To put these time frames into perspective, modern humans emerged 50 000 years ago. Over such massive timescales no one can claim the waste will not leak into the atmosphere or water supplies either via natural processes or because of human intrusion. Any contention that a DGR is safe is pure speculation. It seems entirely appropriate that the NRWDI’s current website displays an empty page when you follow a link to its “DGR Future Project”. 

Moving to renewable energy

Since the first commercial nuclear power reactor at Windscale in England began operating in 1956, the problem of what to do with high-level waste has not been solved, despite the fact that there is now half a million tonnes of it awaiting disposal throughout the world. That South Africa has not found a solution to this problem is unsurprising. What is extremely concerning here, however, is how there appears to be a systematic attempt to forestall having to face the financial consequences of trying to deal with high-level waste. While we can situate the early dysfunction at the NRWDI within the context of state capture, its ongoing lack of resources because of the government’s failure to make polluters pay is deeply troubling. 

The present government’s refusal to make polluters pay is the result of powerful lobbying by the extractive sector, led by the major mining houses operating in South Africa, and the energy sector, led by Eskom and Sasol, two sectors that historically have always had an enormous influence over the South African government. It appears Eskom is far happier dealing with the waste at Koeberg on its own terms – no matter how inadequately or unsafely – than to have an independent body, funded by the polluter-pays principle, manage the waste. Building an uncovered transient interim storage facility on an existing site is a cheaper option for Eskom than having to pay for a CISF mausoleum on a new site. There is a real concern that Eskom will prioritise costs, whereas the NRWDI would, theoretically, prioritise safety.  

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The delays in introducing the polluter-pays principle regarding nuclear waste also stem from the additional costs it adds to the generation of electricity that comes from nuclear power. Even when excluding the costs of the long-term disposal of nuclear waste (whichever form this is to take), there is no economic case for nuclear power in South Africa. When waste disposal costs are added in, the absurdity of pursuing more nuclear power becomes even more evident. No doubt the nuclear industry is lobbying hard in South Africa to ensure that the NRWDI does not become operational anytime soon. 

Despite the Department of Energy’s stated determination not to “impose undue burdens on future generations”, this is exactly what it does in its pursuit of nuclear power. The South African Constitution states that all South Africans have the right “to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations”. 

Nuclear power is entirely inconsistent with this constitutional right, both in terms of present and future generations of South Africans, because of the unresolved problem of high-level waste. The government must close Koeberg and drop its current nonsensical plans to procure an additional 2 500MW of nuclear power. It must stop holding back the development of renewable energy sources and enable the expansion of both utility-scale and off-grid small-scale renewable energy sources in South Africa. 

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