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Do we really need a nuclear smelter? March 1, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa.
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Do we really need a nuclear smelter?

(This column was first published on 2013-02-25 at News24 here)

Since its birth, the nuclear industry has been beset by a number of intractable problems, among them its propensity to produce an ever-growing mountain of radioactive waste that nobody really knows what to do with for the very long periods of time that it will remain dangerous.

Our very own state-owned Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) thinks it’s found the solution for 36 000-odd bits and pieces of atomic scrap metal at its notorious Pelindaba site near the Hartbeespoort Dam, about 30 kilometres west of Pretoria: melt it down in a smelter.

If that sounds like a somewhat dubious idea to you, you’re not the only one. A number of environmental organisations and residents’ groups have raised serious concerns about the project, which has been on the cards for years without ever really attracting a whole lot of media coverage.

Necsa has applied for a Nuclear Installation Licence from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) for the construction and operation of the smelter facility, and some observers believe that it will be issued shortly.

As taxpayers, we should certainly be concerned about the estimated R20m which is about to be spent on a questionable attempt to clean up the remains of apartheid’s toxic A-bomb mess.

The proposal

Over the years, Necsa has accumulated some 14 000 tonnes of waste metal “lightly” contaminated with uranium. About 70% is steel, the rest is aluminium, copper, brass, nickel, cast iron and bronze and almost all of it comes from the decommissioning of uranium enrichment facilities at Pelindaba, the place where South Africa’s atom bombs where developed, built and stored.

Necsa’s plan is to melt all of this metal down in an induction furnace using crucibles with a capacity of 1500 to 4000 Kg per load, expecting to process all of the material over a period of about ten years.

Approximately 98% of the uranium currently contaminating the metal will concentrate in the slag when it’s melted. This slag will be sealed in drums and eventually stored at the national nuclear waste site at Vaalputs in the Northern Cape.

According to Necsa the recycled metal will only contain about 1% of evenly distributed uranium once it’s passed through the smelter, making it clear for “release” onto the market. Not my kind of recycling, to be honest (mental note: check ingredients next time you buy a new frying pan).

The remaining 1% of uranium will be “available as off-gas” which will pass through a filtration system capable of removing more than 99.9% of it. The amount released into the atmosphere will be well below the allowable limit and “the environmental impact will therefore be insignificant”. So says Necsa.

The problems

At a public hearing, hosted by the NNR in Centurion last October, the Pelindaba Working Group’s Dominique Gilbert enumerated various criticisms, including the following:

– Waste incinerators are notorious health and environmental hazards, potentially generating toxic compounds and particulate matter that are difficult to confine.

– Necsa has contracted a controversial Swedish company called Studsvik to help with the design of the smelter, but Studsvik had a complaint of criminal negligence filed against it in 2007 when their bid for a similar smelter was scrapped in the US, allegedly for deliberately failing to follow regulations.

– The NNR does not have the technical or financial capacity to regulate a facility such as this.

– Radioactive smelter projects have a poor track record worldwide, with a number having been shut down as a result of public pressure and successful litigation.

– Experts have expressed serious concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the so-called HEPA filters which are to be used to remove uranium from the smelter off-gas.

– Necsa has refused to consider alternatives, like encapsulating the waste and storing it in a sealed building on site.

I for one don’t like Necsa’s neat little plan for using taxpayers’ money to invest in highly contentious and potentially dangerous technology for cleaning up a nasty mess that the vast majority of us would not have allowed ourselves to get into had we ever been given the choice. How about you?

A farewell to nukes April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa.
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A farewell to nukes

(This column was first published on 2011-03-16 at News24 here)

I’ve had it with nuclear power. And I’ve had enough of nuclear pundits telling me how cheap and clean and green and low-carbon, oh and yes, how safe it is.

Repeated hydrogen explosions at Fukushima Daiichi, the stricken Japanese nuclear power plant; engineers scrambling desperately to stop several plutonium reactors from melting down by using “innovative” (read “improvised”) techniques; a spent fuel storage pond on fire; radioactivity being released into the atmosphere; and traumatised politicians who keep enlarging the evacuation zone look anything but safe to me, not even from half a world away.

Claims that under the circumstances Japan’s nuclear installations have done remarkably well and that things could be much worse and could never get as bad as Chernobyl don’t fill me with comfort either. How bad do things have to get for them to be disastrous? Just ask the tens of thousands of people who’ve been evacuated from their homes around Fukushima.

I have no time for nuclear engineers who assure us that their reactors were designed to cope with the worst possible case scenario and then complain that they were not prepared for the severity of this particular combination of natural calamities – a more than puzzling admission in a country as prone to large earthquake and tsunami double whammies as Japan.

It constantly amazes me that people whose entire industry is based on quantum mechanics, which itself is all about statistical probabilities, can so habitually overlook the fact that even catastrophic natural events with exceedingly low probabilities have a nasty tendency of happening unexpectedly.

And don’t tell me that we’re completely safe from earthquakes in South Africa. The Milnerton earthquake (estimated magnitude: 6.3) which struck the West Coast 200 years ago may have been much weaker than the latest Japanese shaker (magnitude 9.0), but its epicentre was also much closer to the location of Koeberg, currently our only atomic energy plant. The most recent environmental impact report for a further nuclear plant at Koeberg suggests that, taking into account statistical errors, the seismic risk could be significantly higher than the rating typically used in nuclear plant designs.

While nuclear accidents in various parts of the world are blamed on earthquakes, tsunamis, human error by incompetent operators and flawed, previous-generation reactor designs, we’re forever asked to believe that it can’t happen here. Which is exactly what the people of Fukushima believed until a few days ago.

I haven’t even mentioned the environmental havoc caused by uranium mining (think radioactive streams in the Witwatersrand), the health hazards associated with every-day operation, the ever-present threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, the fact that nuclear energy is neither carbon-neutral nor a panacea for climate change, or that nobody really knows what to do with the high-level waste accumulating worldwide which will remain dangerously radioactive for a very long time.

The time to argue that we need nuclear power because it causes less environmental damage and loss of lives through pollution and climate change than energy generated by burning oil, coal or natural gas has come and gone. The implication that our only energy options involve either carbon-based fossil fuels or nuclear power is a red herring.

In fact, the best reason why we should give up on nukes is simply that we don’t need them. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that the lion’s share, if not all, of our electricity needs can be met cost-competitively by truly green, long-term sustainable and renewable energy sources including solar and wind power.

In South Africa, the nuclear industry has the ear of government and unless we start shouting our opposition we’ll soon have more nuclear power rather than less. It’s on the cards and it will happen unless we stop it.

Now is the time to consign this dangerous and out-dated technology to the dustbin of history. We should have abandoned nuclear power after Three Mile Island in 1979. We should have outlawed it after Chernobyl in 1986. And we should most definitely get rid of it for good after Fukushima in 2011. Enough is enough.

Nukes will dwarf the arms deal December 3, 2010

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Column, Environment, Nuclear Power, Politics, renewable energy, South Africa.
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Nukes will dwarf the arms deal

(This column was first published on 2010-10-27 at News24 here)

If government gets its way and goes ahead with building six new nuclear power plants (NPPs), the potential for graft and corruption will make the arms deal fiasco look like a silly squabble over small change. Tenderpreneurs and kleptocrats throughout the land must be licking their lips at the prospect of having their palms, wallets and bank accounts royally greased.

There are many good reasons why nuclear energy is not a good option for South Africa or anywhere else: the health risk associated with NPPs, the waste which remains lethally radioactive for thousands of years and for which nobody has found an acceptable storage solution, the threat of terrorist attack and nuclear weapons proliferation, the fact that uranium fuel is neither inexhaustible nor carbon-neutral, and more. But for those of you who aren’t convinced by these bunny-hugging and touchy-feely sentiments, the clincher should be the fact that nuclear power simply makes no economic sense.

Independent studies show that nuclear energy has never been able to compete with fossil fuels and increasingly can’t compete with renewable energy technologies on a purely financial basis. Not in the First World and certainly not in a developing country like ours where elite powerbrokers have consistently found it impossible to keep their greedy hands out of the coffers of mega-budget projects

The nuclear industry cannot survive without the financial support of the state anywhere in the world. Of the $151bn in government subsidies for the US electricity industry between 1943 and 1999, more than 96% went towards nuclear power. Since the early 1980s the US government has sunk over $90bn into developing a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada without success. In the UK it is estimated that decommissioning of the previous generation of British nuclear plants and their accumulated waste will cost £72bn or more in taxpayers’ money. In February, having spent more than R8bn with absolutely nothing to show for it, our own government finally decided to cut financial support for the ill-fated Pebble Bed Modular Reactor project.

Since the start of the so-called nuclear renaissance in the early 2000s, projected costs for new NPPs have increased two- to four-fold. Their construction is notorious for being over budget and delayed. By the end of last year, the Finish NPP being built on Olkiluoto Island by French state-owned multinational AREVA – a main contender for the South African nuclear bid – was more than three years behind schedule and at least 75% over budget. The only other NPP under construction in Western Europe at Flamanville in France is at least 20% over budget and two years behind schedule.

In an independent analysis of the South African situation, Rod Gurzynski has recently estimated that the total cost of a 1600MW NPP would come to around R100bn “all-in”. Among a number of criticisms, he points out that the consultants’ report on the cost of nuclear energy which was commissioned by the Department of Energy for the government’s 20-year Integrated Resource Plan does not seem to consider decommissioning costs or long-term high-level waste management and storage costs and therefore paints an entirely unrealistic economic picture.

Last month, researchers from Duke University in the USA showed that in North Carolina, which is nowhere near as sunny as South Africa, it is now cheaper to generate electricity using photovoltaic solar panels – possibly the most expensive of all renewable energy options – than by building new NPPs. So why are we still wasting time and money on even considering nuclear power as an option for South Africa?

In 1994, Trevor Manuel, then heading the ANC’s economic desk, said: “we shall not tolerate circumstances in which policy on issues as critical as a nuclear programme be confined to experts in dark, smoke-filled rooms.” In reality, however, that’s exactly how decisions are being made. A small but powerful lobby of special interest groups, including the nuclear industry itself, has the ear of the powers that be and we’ll have to shout a lot louder or we’ll all be burdened with an entire herd of radioactive white elephants soon.

14 Members of Earthlife Africa illegaly arrested December 2, 2010

Posted by Andreas in activism, Environment, Nuclear Power, Politics, Press Release, South Africa.
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(Thursday 2nd December 2010: 12h45)


Earlier today, fourteen members of Earthlife Africa ( Johannesburg ) were illegally arrested for participating in a legal picket in front of the Department of Energy’s (DoE) IRP2 Public Hearing in Midrand. The fourteen have been charged with ‘illegal gathering’ and ‘public indecency’ and are presently being held at the Midrand Police Station.

Despite the fact that according to the Gatherings Act of South Africa, any gathering of less than 15 people does not require prior ‘approval’ from police, Earthlife Africa (Johannesburg) had applied for and received, written approval for the picket from the JMPD several days ago.   Nonetheless, when the activists began their picket – to protest against the DoE moving forward with further coal-fired power generation projects and its stated intent to expand South Africa ’s nuclear power generation – they were summarily arrested by Midrand SAPS and forcibly carted off to the police station. Evidently, the charge of ‘public indecency’ was applied because the picketers were wearing bright clothing!

Earthlife Africa (Johannesburg) Director, Tristen Taylor has condemned the arrests as “a shocking example of abuse of police power … We were engaged in a legal protest over crucially important issues of interest to the South African public … this kind of action is totally unacceptable.”

For further information and comment contact:

TRISTEN TAYLOR on 084 250-2434

Whose electricity is it anyway? November 17, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, Nuclear Power, Politics, rant, renewable energy, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Whose electricity is it anyway?

(This column was first published on 2010-09-22 at News24 here)

At this very moment, wide-ranging decisions about South Africa’s energy future are being made. Decisions that will have major impacts on the environment and on the ecological legacy we’ll leave to future generations. But who is making these decisions?

Government is working on an “Integrated Energy Plan”, a “Climate Change Response Policy”, the second “Integrated Resource Plan” (IRP2) and the establishment of an “Independent Systems Market Operator”. If you’ve heard about any of these, let alone understand what they involve, you belong to a privileged minority.

Take the IRP2, also known as the IRP2010, for example. This plan will establish the framework for major policy and investment choices that need to be made to ensure South Africa’s electricity supply for the next 20 years – how many and what kinds of new power plants are to built and so on. Not a trifling matter and one in which we should all have a say. Indeed, according to the Minister of Energy, Dipuo Peters “the Department [of Energy] is committed to stakeholder engagement and public participation with regard to the IRP2010 […] Public participation is crucial if we were to develop a plan that will stand up to scrutiny […] so that whatever emerges from it will represent the widest spread of views across both government and civil society.”

In reality, of course, the process has been about as consultative as the Spanish Inquisition.

Official documents and procedures are steeped in impenetrably technical and bureaucratic jargon and government has done precious little to inform ordinary people about the issues involved or the fact that they have the right to participate in the debate. Even dedicated NGOs have found it prohibitively difficult to properly engage with and respond to government’s proposals in the very limited time granted them. And when they do formally submit contributions – some 300 civil society comments have been submitted for the IRP2 – only a tiny minority is actually taken into consideration while the majority is simply ignored. Official attempts to co-opt a few hand-picked NGOs amount to little more than trying to legitimise what remains a deeply undemocratic process.

If you’re tempted to think that at least the so-called representatives of South African voters have more of a say in what will go into the IRP2 than civil society at large, you’re sadly mistaken. Parliament has only had a single meeting about the IRP2 and with the exception of a few notable rebel voices, the people’s paid deputies have remained shtum on the issue. Yet we are told that a draft plan is already in circulation within the Department of Energy.

So who is calling the shots? Would you call me a conspiracy theorist if I told you that our country’s energy future is being substantially determined by what is overwhelmingly a small group of powerful men representing the very same interests that have landed us in the mess we’re in today and made us one of the most carbon-intensive countries on the planet? The crucially important technical advisory panel for the IRP2 consists almost exclusively of Eskom technocrats, state apparatchiks and representatives of South Africa’s most wealthy, energy- and carbon-intensive industries with virtually no delegates from civil society or labour to speak of.

And they call this democracy. Looks more like oligarchy – rule by an elite – to me.

So here’s a challenge to Minister Peters: It’s not only your moral and ethical duty to comprehensively inform and consult the general public about the IRP2 process and enable them to participate in it actively, but also a precisely defined legal obligation. There is absolutely no reason why, given good information and the opportunity to engage in robust debate, ordinary citizens should not be capable of collectively making sound decisions about their own energy future.

And the rest of us? Let’s become active citizens and citizen activists. Let’s support and join the organisations that are trying to give voice to public concerns in the energy debate. If we don’t, we’ll simply get railroaded into more of the same old non-solutions: laughably insignificant commitments to renewable energy, more CO2-spewing coal power stations and more dirty nuclear energy.

4 Great Eco-Documentaries at the Labia September 14, 2010

Posted by Andreas in bees, Climate change, Environment, Film screening, Nuclear Power, Sustainable Living, University of Cape Town.
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While You Were Sleeping and the UCT Green Campus Initiative invite you to watch four fantastic documentaries with important environmental themes at the Labia on Orange cinema in Cape Town from Monday 20 September to Thursday 23 September at 6.15pm.

You can’t afford to miss these thought-provoking and inspiring documentary films covering themes from nuclear energy and over-fishing to oil pollution.

Vanishing of the Bees

Monday 20 September 6.15pm

An eye-opening account of the truth behind the world-wide decline in honeybee populations. Known as Colony Collapse Disorder, this phenomenon has brought beekeepers to crisis in an industry responsible for producing apples, broccoli, watermelon, onions, cherries and a hundred other fruits and vegetables. Commercial honeybee operations pollinate crops that make up one out of every three bites of food on our tables. Filming across the US, in Europe, Australia and Asia, this documentary examines the alarming disappearance of honeybees and the greater meaning it holds about the relationship between humanity and nature. As scientists puzzle over the cause, organic beekeepers indicate alternative reasons for this tragic loss. Conflicting options abound and after years of research, a definitive answer has not been found to this harrowing mystery.

The Nuclear Comeback

Tuesday 21 September 6.15pm

In a world living in fear of climate change and global warming, the nuclear industry is proposing itself as a solution. It claims that nuclear power generation produces zero carbon emissions. Is it time we learned to love the split atom? Or is there a risk that we might be jumping out of the carbon frying pan and into the plutonium fire? The Nuclear Comeback poses the question of whether, by seriously considering the renewed development of nuclear power, we may be gambling with the very survival of our planet.

The End of the Line

Wednesday 22 September 6.15pm

Imagine a world without fish! The End of the Line is the world’s first documentary about the devastating effects of overfishing. Filmed across the world – from the Straits of Gibraltar to the coasts of Senegal and Alaska to the Tokyo fish market – featuring top scientists, indigenous fishermen and fisheries enforcement officials, The End of the Line is a wake-up call to the world.


Thursday 23 September 6.15pm

An inside look at the infamous $27 billion “Amazon Chernobyl” case. Three years in the making, this cinéma-vérité feature from acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger is the epic story of one of the largest and most controversial environmental lawsuits on the planet. Crude is a real-life high stakes legal drama, set against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics, celebrity activism, human rights advocacy, the media, multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures.

Each screening will be followed by a facilitated audience discussion. Tickets are R20 and can be reserved by calling The Labia at (021) 424 5927. Reserving tickets is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment.

This event is presented by the UCT Green Campus Initiative, the Labia and While You Were Sleeping, a Cape Town-based non-profit film collective committed to bringing progressive, non-mainstream documentaries with important social and environmental messages to South African audiences.


The Labia:

021 424 5927

UCT Green Campus Initiative:


While You Were Sleeping:

Andreas Späth

084 772 1056


Some cancer with your nuke energy? August 13, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Environment, Nuclear Power, rant, renewable energy, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Some cancer with your nuke energy?

(This column was first published on 2010-07-07 at News24 here)

Is it healthy to live near a nuclear power plant (NPP)? Is there an increased risk of contracting cancer, particularly for babies and young children in their formative years?

These are important, controversial and highly contested questions which have been the subject of intense public and scientific debate in Europe and North America for years.

Yet in South Africa, where Eskom and the government are intent on constructing several new NPPs in the next decade or two, they hardly ever get a mention. In the ongoing environmental impact assessment process for Eskom’s proposed Nuclear1 project, for instance, considerations of the impact on human health have been specifically excluded.

If you’re a regular reader of this column you’ll know that I don’t like nuclear power, but I’ve always considered health concerns to be among the least convincing arguments in the case against nukes. We are told, after all, that barring an accident, radioactive emissions from a NPP are so minimal – practically indistinguishable from the natural background – as to be inconsequential. Well, I’ve changed my mind.

Cancer clusters

In the late 1980s and early 1990s several studies reported a statistically raised incidence of childhood leukaemia, a cancer of the bone marrow or blood, within a ten mile radius of some English and Welsh atomic facilities.

Similar cancer clusters were also identified around some nuclear sites in the USA and France, but a number of contradictory studies from France, Israel, Great Britain, Finland, the USA, Spain and elsewhere could find no evidence for a correlation between the risk of contracting cancer and one’s proximity to a NPP.

The data is inconclusive, the experts said. Besides, there are many possible causes for cancer clusters as well as many cancer clusters which are located far from any NPPs.

Then, in the early 1990s a German medical doctor raised concern over the unusually large number of small children with leukaemia he was treating in his rural practice south east of Hamburg. All of the patients in question lived near the Krümmel NPP.

Several subsequent investigations confirmed his observations and established the existence of a cancer cluster around Krümmel.

In response to the considerable public outrage that followed, the German government commissioned what was designed to be a comprehensive and definitive scientific study to settle the dispute once and for all.

Known by its German acronym, the KiKK study investigated the prevalence of cancer among children below the age of 5 living near 16 of the country’s 20 commercial NPPs from 1980 to 2003. It goes without saying that similar studies have not been conducted in SA, nor are they on the cards.

Scary findings

The German results were releases in 2007 and 2008 and can be summarised as follows:

-Children living within 5km of an NPP are statistically more than twice as likely to develop leukaemia as others residing at a distance of more than 70km.

– The cancer risk increases with decreasing distance of a child’s home from a NPP.

– The data are not skewed by any “rogue” reactors and the results are verified even if data from any individual NPP are excluded from the analysis. The main findings have also been confirmed by subsequent independent evaluations.

So cancer clusters have been found around every German NPP investigated and it’s now officially accepted there that babies and small children – the sector of the population most vulnerable to ionising radiation – develop cancer and particularly leukaemia more frequently if they live near an NPP.

But here is the kicker.

Just because a pattern has been shown to exist doesn’t mean that NPPs are to blame. Since the results are “unexpected under current radiation-epidemiological knowledge” and NPPs supposedly emit too little radioactivity by a factor of 1 000 to 10 000 to cause cancer, “there is currently no plausible explanation for the observed effect”. Occam’s razor be damned!

Personally I don’t really care if small kids living near NPPs develop cancer because of leaking radioactivity or because of toxic fairy dust from evil pixies that just happen to like living in these places. I do have a solution to the conundrum though: let’s just stop building them.

Nuclear 1: Seismic risk assessment May 3, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa.

The draft environmental impact report (EIR) for Eskom’s proposed Nuclear 1 project is available for public comment until 31 May 2010. Eskom is trying to get approval to build new nuclear power stations at three sites (Thyspunt in the Eastern Cape, Bantamsklip in the Western Cape and Duynefontein next to the existing Koeberg plant near Cape Town). You can find the entire report here.

Since I have some professional qualifications in the area and am interested in the matter I worked through the Seismological Risk Assessment Specialist Report (Appendix E4). Here are my (rather lengthy) comments and questions which I will be submitting before the end of the month:

Comments and questions regarding the Seismological Risk Assessment Specialist Report of the Draft Environmental Impact Report for Nuclear 1 (Eskom Nuclear Power Station and Associated Infrastructure)

By: Andreas Späth
Qualifications: BSc (Geology) UCT, MSc (Geology) UCT, PhD (Geology) UCT

An unsatisfactory report

This report is incomplete, scientifically flawed and presents, by its own admission, data that are not in conformance with the latest internationally accepted practice. The (anonymous) authors of the report nevertheless proceed to use these insufficient data to conclude that “the seismic hazard does not preclude a standard export NPS (nuclear power station) at any of the proposed sites”. They appear to come to a preconceived conclusion in the face of their own contradictory observations.

The report seems to have nothing to add to and in fact appears to rely on and revisit the results of a previous report – the Specialist Study: Geology and Seismic Hazard, Council for Geoscience Report number: 2007-0277 which was part of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Demonstration Power Plant (PBMR DPP) Environmental Impact Assessment and Environmental Management Programme.

Question: Has any new and additional work (theoretical or field-based) been carried out since the PBMR DPP report or is the current report based on the results presented in that report?

Considering the importance of a thorough seismic evaluation of any site for an installation as potentially hazardous as a nuclear power plant (in the words of the report itself: “’Local vibratory ground motion’ resulting from geological-related seismic events (fault rupture), which, in terms of potential consequences, constitutes the most serious geo-scientific threat to a NPS”), this report is highly problematic and its recommendations and conclusions are, at best, questionable.

My comments focus particularly on the assessment of the Duynefontein site, but the majority are generally applicable to all three proposed sites.

Evidence for a major historic earthquake

The report acknowledges that a major earthquake has occurred in the close vicinity of the Duynefontein site in historic time:

“Reliable evidence for a large earthquake with an intensity of VIII, and ML 6.3 (Brandt et al., 2005) having occurred in 1809 within 25 km of Duynefontein comes from historical records of its secondary effects. […] Dames and Moore (1976) concluded that enough circumstantial evidence exists for the presence of a NW striking fault offshore of Duynefontein but that it does not come closer than 8 km to the site. It is however possible that such a fault could pass anywhere between 7 and 10 km offshore of Duynefontein (the inferred Melkbos Ridge fault passes 7.5 from the Koeberg NPS). No new research has been performed to confirm or refute the presence of the fault or its point of closest approach to the site.”

The fact that the source (fault) responsible for this historic earthquake has not been identified with certainty does in no way preclude a recurrence of a similar event in future and neither should the fact that it took place over 200 years ago inspire any confidence since such a time period is practically instantaneous in geological terms.

The important conclusion, studiously avoided by the report’s authors, is that there is no reason to believe that major earthquakes will not happen in the close vicinity of the Duynefontein site again.

The earlier report for the PBMR DPP mentioned above is more explicit:

“Detailed work will have to be undertaken if a new location is chosen on this site.The questions around the 1809 to 1810 seismic events and the existence of the Milnerton fault have to be further resolved.” […]

“Whatever the cause of the earthquake, its effects imply that peak ground
accelerations (for M 6 proximal events) between 0.2 and 0.3g were attained
(Talwani and Gassman, 2000) 11 km south of Koeberg.” […]

“The seismic hazard model should therefore take into account the possibility that a fault capable of producing an event at least equal in size to the 1809 event of inferred M 6.3 magnitude, and with a minimum recurrence interval of about 200 years, is located about 8 km SW of Koeberg.”

Where the PBMR DPP report called for ”detailed work” that “will have to be undertaken” to resolve “the questions around the 1809 to 1810 seismic events and the existence of the Milnerton fault”, the current report acknowledges that “no new research has been performed to confirm or refute the presence of the fault or its point of closest approach to the site”.

Question: Why has no new detailed work been done to resolve this issue as recommended by the previous PBMR DPP report?

Poor quantitative data

The report is remarkable for its extreme sparsity of quantitative scientific data. While qualitative and observational data is, of course very valuable, for a report of as much significance as this one, the presentation of more measurable quantitative information would have been of paramount importance.

The only quantitative measure evaluating potential seismic activity presented in the entire report is the peak ground acceleration or PGA expected at the three sites during future earthquakes. The values given are:

Thyspunt 0.16g,
Bantamsklip 0.23g, and
Duynefontein 0.30g.

The report assures us that:

“None of these exceed the PGA of 0.3g typically used in the seismic design of NPSs, although the values for the Bantamsklip and Duynefontein sites are close, or at this threshold.”

The fact that this seismic hazard assessment includes only a single quantitative measure is worrying.

Question: Why were no additional quantitative parameters of seismic risk assessment determined?

The report acknowledges that the PGA values quoted for the three sites were determined using outdated methodology (Parametric-Historic PSHA, or Parametric-Historic Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analysis) which does not conform to the latest internationally accepted practice:

“Parametric-Historic methodology previously employed for SHA [seismic hazard analysis] of these sites, does not include all the aspects recommended in the latest regulatory guides for NPPs [nuclear power plants]. As a result, the ground-motion values calculated using the Parametric-Historic PSHA are not directly comparable in a meaningful manner to those calculated using a PSHA as defined in RG 1.208 and needs to be confirmed. A new and advanced Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analysis (PSHA) will therefore be undertaken, that will follow the latest internationally accepted practice, and in particular, will conform to the requirements of a Level 3 study as defined in the SSHAC Guidelines (Budnitz et al., 1997).”

The only quantitative assessment of seismic risk included in the report is thus not in conformance with accepted international standards.

Question: When will “a new and advanced Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analysis (PSHA)” following “the latest internationally accepted practice” be undertaken?

For what they are worth, the PGA values cited in the report are quoted to an accuracy of two decimal places. While the report makes a point of highlighting that the study of seismic phenomena is subject to substantial degrees of uncertainty, associated with both the apparent randomness of the physical processes involved in earthquakes and the seismic waves they generate (this is referred to as aleatory uncertainty) and the lack of sufficient data and knowledge (epistemic uncertainty), no indication of the statistical uncertainty associated with the quoted PGA values is given.

Without knowledge of the associated uncertainty, however, these values become questionable. This is particularly significant in the case for the Duynefontein site for which the quoted PGA value of 0.30g is identical to the value “typically used in the seismic design of NPSs”. The mathematical error associated with the PGA values may, for all we know, take them significantly above this “typical” threshold. Not quoting mathematical error limits with the only quantitative measure cited in the entire report is scientifically sloppy at best.

Question: What are the errors associated with the PGA values quoted in the report?

It should also be noted that reference to a “typical” value for “the seismic design of standard export NPSs” is not particularly enlightening, especially considering the fact that the specific design for Nuclear 1 is yet to be decided upon.

Internationally acceptable data will only be available pending further study and the report acknowledges that the PGA values quoted may increase based on this additional research:

“The findings presented here still needs to be confirmed by a more rigorous PSHA and may increase or decrease these values.”

This is particularly worrisome for all three sites, but especially for the Duynefontein site where the PGA value is already on the threshold “typically used in the seismic design of NPSs”. According to the report’s own observations the PGA values for all three sites may potentially rise above the 0.3g threshold once internationally acceptable methodology is used to recalculate these parameters.

Importantly the earlier PBMR DPP report mentioned above provides some additional and very significant information:

“The maximum possible earthquake for this region calculated by the Parametric-Historic Procedure (Kijko and Graham, 1998, 1999) is expected to be M 6.60±0.3 and the deterministically calculated Peak Ground Acceleration is 0.27 g ±0.14”

Question: What is the reason for the discrepancy between the PGA value of 0.27g quoted in the PBMR DPP report and the PGA value of 0.30g quoted in the current report? Was the PGA value of 0.30g in the current report determined using different methodology and/or data than the value of 0.27g from the PPMR DPP report?

The error quoted in the PBMR DPP report is significant since it pushes the potential PGA value to a maximum of 0.41g which is substantially higher that the threshold of 0.3g “typically used in the seismic design of NPSs” according to the current report. If the error associated with the PGA value of 0.30g presented for Duynefontein in the current report is comparable, the maximum PGA value would be pushed to an even higher value of 0.44g.

Mitigation measures

According to the report, mitigation measures against the effects of earthquake activity at the proposed sites would include the fact that:

“The geotechnical and structural civil engineers shall assign the appropriate “seismic design criteria” for the design of utilities, including on-site and off-site water reservoirs.”

It is, however, entirely unclear how these engineers would be able to determine what would constitute “appropriate” seismic design criteria based on data that do not conform to international standards. References to additional future studies are of little use in the context of assessing the value of the current report.

The need for a scientific peer review

Considering the importance of a thorough assessment of seismic risk for the siting of a nuclear power plant, this report should urgently be subjected to a rigorous peer review process during which it (as well as all available raw data and detailed expositions of any methodologies employed) would be scrutinised by several independent and disinterested seismologists and geotectonicists of international reputation. As it stands the report expresses merely the opinion of its authors and it would not even be considered for publication in an internationally recognised scientific journal. Why should it be sufficient or acceptable as a basis for a decision that may affect the lives and livelihoods of several generations and the health of large stretches of the natural environment?

Unscientific conclusion

Considering the information and observations presented in the report itself, the key conclusion drawn by its authors comes as a major surprise. It would appear that they arrive at a predetermined conclusion regardless if it contradicts some of their own observations noted in the report and some of which I have discussed above.

The key conclusion of the report is as follows:

“Based on current knowledge, the three localities under review are considered suitable locations for standard export NPS’s following the extensive Nuclear Siting Investigation Programme (NSIP). To date no geological evidence has been found that would halt the development of a NPS at any these sites.”

Even on superficial inspection, however, this conclusion is disingenuous and scientifically flawed. An honest assessment of the actual available data presented in the report is more accurately contained in the following paragraph:

“the available data indicate that the Thyspunt site has the lowest seismic risk of the three proposed NPS sites, and from a seismic point of view, Thyspunt is the preferred site of the three proposed NPS sites. Furthermore, in the light of the uncertainty as to whether the revised PSHA will result in significantly different PGA values, Thyspunt is the site with the biggest seismic margin to accommodate changes to this value.”

The report uses outdated methods to calculate a single quantitative measure to assess the seismic risk associated with each of the three proposed sites. The best that can be done using this flawed scientific data is to rank the three sites in an at best semi-quantitative manner – thus the identification of Thyspunt as the preferred site. These data cannot, however, be used to assess the actual seismic risk at the sites on the basis of internationally acceptable scientific methods (even at Thyspunt, the flawed data cannot be used to discount the possibility of possible significant seismic risk). The key conclusion cited above is therefore all but meaningless until such time as data that are consistent with international scientific norms are available.

Quite contrary to the official conclusion, the precautionary principle – a principle that must be applied when assessing technology as sensitive and potentially dangerous as nuclear energy – suggests that on the basis of the information presented in the report, the Duynefontein site should not be considered as a suitable site for a nuclear power plant until scientific evidence suggesting otherwise can be presented.

Chernobyl Day Commemoration April 21, 2010

Posted by Andreas in activism, Cape Town, Environment, History, Nuclear Power, South Africa.
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South Africa resuscitates nuke programme May 26, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa.
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When Eskom appeared to stop it’s plans to build more nuclear power stations in South Africa at the end of last year, those of us who oppose this expensive, dangerous and environmentally costly form of electricity generation heaved a big, but temporary sigh of relief, knowing perfectly well that the monster would be back soon enough. So here it is: the national power utility is hoping to build not one, but three new conventional atomic power plants.

According to Melanie Gosling, Eskom is:

asking to be allowed to combine authorisations to develop Nuclear-1, Nuclear-2 and Nuclear-3 power stations at all three coastal sites earmarked for the nuclear programme. The three sites are Bantamsklip near Pearly Beach in the Overstrand, Thyspunt near Oyster Bay in the Eastern Cape and the Koeberg site of Dynefontein 30km north of Cape Town. At the start of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) the three places were to be assessed as alternative sites for the proposed Nuclear-1. […] The application includes the “roll-out dates” for the first three nuclear power stations: site preparation for Nuclear-1 will start in January next year and the nuke will come online in July 2018; site preparation for Nuclear-2 will begin in January 2013 and come online in July 2020 and Nuclear-3 site preparation start in January 2015 and come online in July 2022.

Great. We’re told that South African passports can’t be trusted, but we’re asked to put our faith in Eskom’s load-shedding hands when it comes to running a fully-fledged nuclear power programme…

If you’re looking for a juicy project encompassing both politics and the environment into which to sink your activist teeth, helping to stop this lunacy should be near the top of your agenda.