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Why nuclear power still sucks February 26, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Nuclear Power.

I don’t like nuclear energy. I don’t like living 30 kms from Africa’s sole commercial nuclear power plant. Mostly, this is just a visceral gut reaction – atomic energy worries me and I don’t want it in my life, period.


The nuclear industry has been doing badly in recent years so I haven’t had much need to defend my hatred for it in a more rational way, but unfortunately… nuclear power seems on the comeback trail.

A growing number of governments, including those of the USA, the UK and South Africa, are actively promoting a growing role for atomic power. The nuclear energy lobby is fraudulently promoting itself as a “carbon-free alternative”, the habitually deceitful George W. Bush claims that “nukyular” power is a renewable source of energy and even the erstwhile darling of the new-age green movement, James Lovelock who conceived the Gaia theory, tells us that “nuclear power is the only green solution” to global warming.


The South African government is heavily invested in the nuclear industry and has just revealed a nuclear program involving the construction of 12 conventional and 24 pebble bed modular reactor atomic power stations.

The Cape Argus recently quoted Rob Adam, the CE of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (Necsa) as saying that “geographic factors in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape ruled out any sources of power other than nuclear energy.”

This is an astonishing statement, mostly because it is completely untrue. Wind power and solar power are both viable options in the Western and Eastern Cape. I wrote several emails to Necsa to find out if Adam had perhaps been misquoted, but have yet to receive a response.

So what are we to do, faced with all this pro-nuclear propaganda? Educate ourselves. Say no to this dangerous technology, oppose it wherever we can and spread the word. Here are six good reasons to ditch nuclear power for good.

Nuclear No Thanks

Nuclear power is expensive

Atomic power plants are hugely expensive, take around a decade to build and cost billions to decommission. In fact, a 2002 a UK Cabinet Office report showed that nuclear power costs more than on-shore or off-shore wind electricity per unit generated. Besides, nuclear power stations produce waste that remains lethal to the environment and humans for tens of thousands of years – how on Earth do you put a price on that?

The global nuclear industry has long survived on massive government subsidies and South Africa has been no different. According to the World Council on Renewable Energy, it has been supported worldwide to the tune of a total of at least a trillion (i.e. a thousand billion) dollars, while only $50 billion has been spent on renewable energy. Imagine where we would be today if that ratio had been reversed?


Nuclear power is no solution to global warming

Many politicians and the nuclear industry claim that we need nuclear energy to reduce CO2 emissions which are a major cause of global warming. While it is true that atomic energy plants generate substantially less CO2 than coal-fired power stations, they still produce much more CO2 than renewables.

If nuclear power would contribute 70% of all electricity produced worldwide by 2100 (which would require construction of 10 000 new nuclear reactors), it would lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of merely 16%. This is because electricity production is only a comparatively small part of the problem – fossil fuel powered transport being the biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

According to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute,

Each dollar invested in electric efficiency displaces nearly seven times as much carbon dioxide as a dollar invested in nuclear power, without any nasty side effects. If climate change is the problem, nuclear power isn’t the solution. It’s an expensive, one-size-fits-all technology that diverts money and time from cheaper, safer, more resilient alternatives.


Nuclear power is not a renewable source of energy

The world’s total recoverable reserves of uranium (the fuel for most nuclear power plants) have been estimated to be around 4.6 million tonnes. There may be another 10 million tonnes in undiscovered or low-grade ores. The world’s current atomic energy plants need about 75 000 tonnes of uranium oxide per year. Even without building the many new nuclear power stations that atomic advocates are demanding, the present recoverable reserves are enough to satisfy the world’s current nuclear capacity for only another 60 years (source: Is nuclear power a solution to climate change? by Pete Roche).


Nuclear power is dirty

The whole nuclear energy chain, from mining, to transport, enrichment, fission, waste storage and waste disposal creates pollution at every stage. Nuclear reactors generate high-level radioactive waste that will remain lethal for tens of thousands of years and operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants produces huge amounts of low-level waste.

No repository for high-level nuclear waste has been established anywhere in the world, even though the USA has thrown more than R80 million at the problem. According to some estimates it may take another 25 to 40 years for a high-level nuclear waste facility to be in operation in the UK.

The Blacksmith Institute has recently declared Chernobyl the most polluted place on Earth. Twenty years after the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster, the 19-mile exclusion zone around the plant remains uninhabitable. A former soviet uranium plant in Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan, also makes the top 10 list.


Nuclear power is dangerous

Just ask the people who used to live near Chernobyl! The US Department of Energy has estimated that around the globe (because yes, radiation can travel) there were around 40 000 cancer deaths that can be linked to the Chernobyl disaster.

And it isn’t just dangerous when the huge disasters happen. Uranium miners are routinely exposed to substantial doses of radiation, particularly through inhalation of radioactive radon gas derived from uranium ore.

Nuclear power stations are prime targets for terrorist attacks and the civilian atomic energy industry produces highly enriched uranium and plutonium which can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.


The nuclear power industry has blood on its hands!

Critics may consider this point a historical irrelevancy that should not cloud our rational judgment of the “peaceful” uses of atomic energy, but the civilian nuclear industry will forever be linked to the most hideous weapons of mass destruction invented and used by humans.

The connection between atomic bombs and nuclear power plants are, of course, as intimate in South Africa as they are around the world. In the words of George Monbiot:

[…] we will never rid the world of nuclear weapons if we do not also rid it of nuclear power. Every state which has sought to develop a weapons programme over the past 30 years – Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq and Iran – has done so by manipulating its nuclear power program.

In recent years, the the USA and the UK have made use of depleted uranium ammunition (considered by some as a convenient vehicle to get rid of nuclear waste produced by the atomic energy industry) in the wars in the Balkans and Iraq. These weapons have been connected with horrendous increases in cancers, deaths, birth defects and environmental contamination that are just the latest outrage in a long history of violence and bloodshed.


So there you have it. These are just some reasons to reject nuclear power. There are more, but do you really need them? Say no to atomic energy – for your own sake, for that of your children and for that of our planet!



1. Richard Hassinger - February 27, 2007

I’m afraid virtually all of your points are weak. Some are even plain wrong. Transport using fossil fuels is the #1 cause of greenhouse gasses. Perhaps you have never heard of hydrogen? The amount of “pollution” created by uranium enrichment and consumption is extremely tiny compared with the pollution caused by fossil fuel extraction, refinement and burning. Chernobyl was a fiasco badly designed and badly managed by a communist system, what do you expect. PBMR’s are about as clean and fail-safe as can be. The uranium isotope needed for fission power is, in fact, everywhere. The most abundant supply is located in seawater. The cost of extracting it is high, but the energy produced from what is extracted is still much higher than the amount of energy generated from fossil fuels. The source could keep us going for millions of years, not even considering that other isotopes are usable in fission. Your last, point, about depleted uranium, is simply a lie. Find one reliable reference to “horrendous increases in cancers, etc.” … you can’t because it’s not true. There is in fact US Army personnel from the first Gulf War that suffered from friendly fire incidents and have depleted uranium shrapnel in their bodies, even their brains, and they are still around today, no worse off from the depleted uranium fragments than if they were lead. South Africa is the only country, other than China, to have spearheaded the new nuclear age, you should be proud to be a part of it. We Americans are envious.

2. Andreas - February 27, 2007

Hi Richard and thanks for your comments.

You say “Transport using fossil fuels is the #1 cause of greenhouse gasses. Perhaps you have never heard of hydrogen?”

I think I agree, but I’m not really sure I quite understand what you mean here (probably just me being slow ;)). The point I was trying to make is that many politicians and nuclear lobbyists are promoting nuclear power as the answer to global warming when that is obviously not true. Increased use of atomic energy will only result in relatively small reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. There are cheaper, cleaner and more efficient ways of tackling that particular problem. Not sure what your point about hydrogen is.

You say: “The amount of “pollution” created by uranium enrichment and consumption is extremely tiny compared with the pollution caused by fossil fuel extraction, refinement and burning.”

I like the way you phrase that: extremely tiny “pollution”, haha! Sure, in some ways burning fossil fuels is much more polluting than nuclear energy (especially if we ignore that pesky problem of the LONG-LIVED RADIOACTIVE WASTE). Two wrongs don’t make a right, though. Electricity generation from oil, coal and gas are not the solution, but neither is nuclear power.

You say: “Chernobyl was a fiasco badly designed and badly managed by a communist system, what do you expect.”

Sure, those commies didn’t really care about the well-being of their children or country. The capitalist nuclear industry takes care of us and our environment. What you’re saying is “it can’t happen here”, right!? Vague memories of Three Mile Island… oh, but I guess that was just the exception that proves the rule.

You say: “PBMR’s are about as clean and fail-safe as can be.”

And entirely unproven in a large-scale commercial sense, with problems like waste disposal and nonsensical economics etc. still unresolved. Oh, and of course renewables are cleaner and more fail-safe.

The same goes for uranium extraction from seawater. I’d be interested to see a reference that details the energy requirements and environmental implications for that particular approach.

There are many references to the effects of depleted uranium. Google and ye shal find! In his latest book, The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk, gives a devastating first-hand account of the impact of DU ammunition in Iraqi hospitals, but in case you are worried about Fisky’s “reliability”, here are a few more references:


Click to access undiagnosed.pdf


The history of the nuclear industry in South Africa is intimately linked with the apartheid governement’s atomic weapons program and remains a particluarly poignant reminder of this country’s shameful past… certainly nothing many South African’s feel the need to be proud of.

Best regards,

3. Anonymous - March 1, 2007

You, Andreas, are an idiot. If you had even the vaguest idea what you were talking about you would know that commercially viable renewable energy generation is a delusion. Good luck anyway.

4. Andreas - March 1, 2007

Ah yes, the subtly-argued approach. How very constructive!

5. mark - March 2, 2007

An oblique comment… in that the world’s energy issues are not just the domain of a few decision makers. They are the responsibility of every individual. I am noting the excessively consumptive attitudes of our society in general, and our unwillingness to give up our creature comforts like airconditioning, big engines, disposable conveniences, full baths, fancy (but energy voracious) house designs, unwillingness to exercise and so on. While energy is still needed its rate of increase could be massively slowed by personal contributions. Clever beneficiation of what energy is available musnt be underestimated…

6. Andreas - March 2, 2007

I agree 100%, Mark. Energy efficiency has huge potential for reducing both our resource consumption and our greenhouse gas output and individuals can make a big contribution to that. The fact that we are so addicted to the creature comforts you list is a major obstacle.

I also think that there are big systemic problems, however. Individual lifestyle changes are needed, but to my mind, the very basis of how our society/civilisation operates is in dire need of a collective rethink…

7. Richard Hassinger - March 6, 2007

I didn’t have much time/space to argue my points so many were left open to interpretation or attack. I’ll try and address some of those issues you brought up.

Hydrogen is at least part of the solution to replacing the fuel in our cars and planes. Right now if you want to put hydrogen in your car you can, but the process of reverse hydrolysis requires energy, typically from burning fossil fuels. PBMRs could help this situation in two ways, one by generating electricity to extract hydrogen, and another by piggy-backing on the PBMR itself to utilize the excess heat that the turbine can’t use. Right now I have no use for a hydrogen vehicle because the nearest pump is 10 miles away, but an Australian company is commercializing a unit that will refill your car at home using solar panels: http://blogs.business2.com/greenwombat/the_hydrogen_economy/index.html
It sounds promising. But there’s nothing like a nuclear reactor generating tons of hydrogen for our vehicles while produzing near-zero waste. I hope you’re not afraid of driving around with a tank of compressed hydrogen.

Solar and wind have been options for decades, but they have failed to pan out. They just don’t pull in enough watts to make them especially useful. That being said, it makes sense to pursue them anyway where there is abundant “fuel”. California has announced plans to build wave turbines off its coast and a wind farm in Canada. Still, there are many hurdles in the way before this shows up on the radar.

I took a look at your links about depleted uranium, and they don’t support your claim. If you read carefully, nothing any of the reliable sites (that is the news organizations, not the extremist “stop nato now” sites) can be used to support the conclusion that depleted uranium is dangerous. Words like “unexplained”, “might” and “controversy” should raise eyebrows to this claim.

Depleted uranium is not the same as spent fuel rods. The rods are still highly reactive and are usually stored on-site where they were used. This means that all “pollution” from nuclear energy production is still sitting there, doing nothing, and not bothering anyone. If you go out to Seattle and measure the air quality, you will actually pick up low levels of lead, mercury and other bad things that have floated all the way from China. THAT is pollution, not the small set of rods sitting in a pool of water.

The cost of uranium is virtually free at this time. It’s plentiful enough that we could go for 70 years on the highly concentrated deposits that are now known. I think the open market cost of uranium fuel (3% pure) is about $20/kg. To get the less concentrated deposits, we have to put more work into purifying it, which might raise the price to $50/kg, that would keep us going for a few thousand years. Eventually, assuming we haven’t perfected nuclear fission by then, we’d have to turn to seawater. At that point the cost of extracting one kg of uranium might be well over $1000. But even at that cost, the impact on electricity is almost zilch. Uranium is so efficient a fuel that at $1000/kg it might raise your electricity bill by about one penny per kwh. Breeder reactors, once perfected, could produce a steady stream of plutonium, another effective nuclear fuel. Other chemicals are known to be possible fuel sources. So you’re only fooling yourself by saying that we have a very limited supply of uranium. The sky is the limit at this point.

You say that PBRM is “entirely unproven in a large-scale commercial sense”. Soon we will see. China has an experimental PBMR running right now and has conducted a number of “nightmare” scenarios with no problems. They intend to mass manufacture enough units to produce 300gw of power by 2050. That’s almost the capacity that the entire world uses now. Will China commercialize and export PBMRs to the rest of the world? I certainly hope so.

Finally, you say that SA’s nuclear program is linked to apartheid… yes apartheid was shameful, and perhaps the secret weapons program was funded out of paranoia, but the past is the past. Pick up the pieces, learn from mistakes and leverage what is known to build a better future. Personally I find it admirable that in SA, a country with almost boundless coal reserves and a company that has the technology to turn coal into automobile fuel (at a huge cost to the environment), they’re pushing forward with PBMR.

8. Andreas - March 6, 2007

Thanks for your long comment, Richard. I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling that neither of us is ever going to convince the other.

We can continue to refute each other’s arguments and question each other’s sources of information for eternity… if you spend billions on nuclear and a fraction of those billions on solar and wind, yes, they will continue to “fail to pan out”. Your back-of-the envelope calculations regarding the cost of virtually free and limitless uranium resources are credible, my sources are “extremist”, you blame “communist” Russia for Chernobyl, but are perfectly happy for “communist” China to build hundreds of PBMRs (tried and abandoned in Germany), and , as usual, you continue to downplay the fact that nuclear power stations will generate long-lived and highly toxic waste that can, has been and will continue to be used to build weapons of mass distruction and for which there is as yet no acceptable long-term storage arrangement, etc., etc.

Can we at least agree that the question of whether or not South Africa should embark upon a major expansion into nuclear power generation is important enough to not just leave it to politicians and the atomic energy industry itself? Surely, even in a supposedly representative democracy like ours, something as important as this should require a clear and unequivocal mandate from the population of the country.

Call me a cynic and a pessimist, but I think what is going to happen in this country is that we will be railroaded down the nuclear track by people with very considerable vested interests. It’s the atomic gravy train! Environmental impact assessments will be rubber stamped onto the grand plan, periods for public scrutiny and comment will come and go and soon enough a woefully underinformed and in fact largely ignorant public will be presented with facts on the ground that will be nearly impossible to reverse, even if we wanted to. And they will call it democracy!

9. Yes mom, I am an anarchist! « The Antidote - March 22, 2007

[…] in a state of shock. People had kept telling her about the anti-nuclear rant I wrote on News24 and my blog, but although she was somewhat concerned about my taking the apparently unpopular anti-atomic […]

10. Idetrorce - December 15, 2007

very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

11. aaron pine - January 28, 2008


I am an architect living in the US. I completely agree with you on all of the points you mention. Nuclear energy is, perhaps, mankinds greatest blunder. It is a really bad idea executed on a gigantic scale.

By using nuclear energy, we are forcing our descendants to be the stewards of our nuclear waste. They have no choice.

With no long term solution in sight, is leaving a legacy of nuclear waste fair to the unborn generations of the future, all because we will not change our light bulbs and use efficient appliances?

Nonetheless, the idiots are looking to pick-up where they left off. We are going to have to strike up the band to derail the oncoming train, just like we did in the 1970’s

See you on the street and thanks for keeping up the fight.

12. Anonymous - February 8, 2008

you suck i love N energy

13. accinabenty - February 25, 2008

To me it is necessary to find

14. Milcho - March 17, 2008

Watch Penn And Teller’s show Bullshit, specifically the episode called “Energy Crisis”.

I sure hope people like you aren’t in charge of the energy production in the US.

Since a couple of people have expressed their opinions against Nuclear energy in the posts, I will take the liberty to do the same thing.

Nuclear energy is the safest, cleanest and most efficient form of energy we can get. Chernobyl was a fuck-up by the Russians. The hype that radiation is horribly deadly (and some studies that support tha cancer/radiation correlation) are quite biased. We’re bombarded by a lot more radiation from the sun, and many other sources.

Alas, for now, there are alternatives to using nuclear power, even though those alternatives aren’t better, they’re still able to match the cheapness and effectiveness of Nuclear power. In the future, however, many of these will run out, and we will be left with few choices. And, no, Solar energy isn’t going to be one of them, unless we get solar panels that derive _more_ than 80% efficiency (I belive currently the mass-produced ones have around 10% efficiency). Economic viability is the key here. If a solar panel cannot provide the energy it takes to produce it, plus extra to supply to humanity, then it is a net loss.

I am not against trying alternatives. Present me with an efficient solar panel, and I will accept it. Wind turbines have become greatly more efficient, and as we can see, they are employed a lot in the US. There is still insufficient land area to provide all the needed energy from just turbines.

Nuclear power will remain a quite effienct source of energy, but what I am really looking forward to is Fusion reactors – and I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, but its the next logical step.

As for the saftey of nuclear power.. There have been great engineering imporovements in plant-production over the past 15 years – not just in the Nuclear field. However, because of people who protest nuclear power, no new plants have been build in the US since the 1970s. Essentially, we are forced to use old and less safe plants because of people’s fear of Nuclear power. Besides Chernobyl, which, again, was a fuck up from the government, the only other significant incident comes from Three Mile Island. As far as that, a source from wikipedia states : “The average radiation dose to people living within ten miles of the plant was eight millirem, and no more than 100 millirem to any single individual. Eight millirem is about equal to a chest X-ray, and 100 millirem is about a third of the average background level of radiation received by US residents in a year.”


I emplore you to try and research some of the positive sides of Nuclear energy, and to see if it really is worth it to not have any nuclear reactors. Fear of the unknown is often an issue, but radiation isn’t as dangerous as people fear it to be.

Good day.

15. Andreas - March 17, 2008

Rest assured, Milcho, people like myself are definitely NOT in charge of energy production in the US.


16. Chuck - March 19, 2008

Milcho and Richard you guys are my heroes!

I am a University student studying Engineering in Alberta Canada and here it’s all about OIL everyone wants oil but no one around here takes the time to think about how much that will impact us drilling up our famed tarsands is going to do more damage to Alberta’s environment then even a nuclear meltdown could do!

Nuclear has it’s dangers but doesn’t all new technology? Nuclear has only been around for a few decades and it has spent most of that time being shunned and feared and as such not studied… The more we oppress a technology due to fear the longer it will take to make it safe…

17. ramona silvestri - October 8, 2008

oh my GOD what the hell is wrong with mc cain someone help him study cherynobol and If mc cain has his way our grand kids and their grand kids will be mutants….STOP MC CAIN!! he wants tons of nuclear power plants to be built Mc Cain YOU ARE A DINOSAUR!!

18. ramona silvestri - October 8, 2008


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