HomeIndustry SectorsAsset MaintenanceCommentary: Nuclear waste storage is not a problem

Commentary: Nuclear waste storage is not a problem

By Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants

The European Commission’s scientific body the Joint Research Centre released a report in April 2021 which stated that nuclear power is classified as ‘green’ because it does not emit any carbon dioxide gas. This is important because nuclear then qualifies for a ‘green’ investment label under the EU green finance taxonomy.

But the anti-nuclear lobby immediately objected. Currently, nuclear power accounts for 26% of EU electricity. Of course, it is also stable electricity, which is available all the time and not dependent on the weather. So why do the extreme greens object to nuclear when it emits no CO2? Well, one reason is that extreme green elements want to curtail all electricity production, and also do not want inexpensive electricity.

Their argument is that if there is plentiful inexpensive electricity then mankind will make more cars, more TVs, more air conditioning, and so on. For that more factories will be built, roads made, telecommunications extended and so the list goes on. They don’t want that. They want GDP growth to slow down, or ideally stop. They advocate a simple lifestyle in which flying in aeroplanes, and eating red meat is to be frowned upon.

So they don’t like the idea of inexpensive reliable nuclear power, particularly if it becomes available in African countries.

So now that the EU says that nuclear is ‘Green’ from a CO2 point of view, they are desperately looking for another angle to use to oppose it. One that they are grasping at is nuclear waste.

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Aircraft landing at low level nuclear waste site in the Western Cape, South Africa

The nuclear waste threat

Let me state clearly that nuclear waste disposal is not a problem. A far larger problem is the disposal of old wind turbines and solar panels.

The first thing to take note of is the volume difference. There is a huge volume of wind turbines and solar panels which have to be disposed of in due course. But the amount of high-level nuclear waste is tiny.

Koeberg nuclear power station uses only one truckload of nuclear fuel per year. That fuel then powers all of Cape Town and half of the Western Cape. Only one truckload in a year! When you burn coal it turns into other stuff, like coal ash, carbon dioxide, and other gases. Mountains of ash in fact. But if you look at a nuclear fuel element before it goes into a nuclear reactor, and then when it comes out again, one and a half years later, it looks exactly the same.

Some uranium atoms inside have been changed into other atoms, but nothing like ash or gas is produced. Nothing! All you have to dispose of is the original truckload. One per year. Only individual metal assemblies, no gas, no ash, nothing else.

So we must ask: are these used fuel elements dangerous? The answer is an emphatic yes. If you were to walk past an unprotected one it will kill you. But you can also die from sleeping pills; skydiving; or driving a car; if you do not take due care. If you want a good night’s sleep you can take an entire bottle of sleeping pills. You will not wake up! But people generally do not do stupid things with products, or with actions, which can be dangerous. Nuclear professionals do not do stupid things with spent fuel elements either.

When anti-nuclear activists accuse nuclear professionals of not taking nuclear waste into account, that is plain stupid. Can you seriously imagine professional nuclear engineers designing a nuclear power station and forgetting to make provisions for handling spent fuel elements?

Vaalputs HQ nuclear waste site in South Africa

Disposal for Koeberg NPP

South Africa possesses one of the largest and oldest nuclear waste repositories in the world. It is called Vaalputs and is about 100km inland from the remote Northern Cape town of Springbok. South Africa is the same size as the whole of Western Europe, so we are fortunate to have ample space to choose a place that is 100 kilometres from human habitation.

Currently only lower levels of nuclear waste are stored underground there. Items like lab coats, paper towels, old pipes, and so on, which were used in a nuclear facility and which may contain some nuclear residue.

The government has not yet authorised the permanent storage of the spent nuclear fuel there. All the spent fuel, from nearly 40 years of operations at Koeberg is still on-site, either underwater in a pool, or lined up outside in special protective casks. That is how little there is. If you want to sit next to one of the casks and eat your lunch it is quite safe to do so.

The extreme green’s attempts to demonise nuclear waste are plain silly. Even sillier is to try to claim that waste storage is beyond the ability of nuclear professionals to deal with.

There is no problem with nuclear waste, when it is handled by professionals, in accordance with the stringent rules of procedure that are in place.

Nuclear power is by far the best green energy for Europe, and even more so for all of Africa.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria. He carries out business strategy development and project planning in a wide variety of fields for diverse clients. Stratek@pixie.co.za

Read more from the World Nuclear Association
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