Friday, February 8, 2008

What to do with 'those dangerous uranium stones'

What to do with 'those dangerous uranium stones'
By Helena Kingwill, free-lance journalist and independent film-maker

Nuclear Energy is the government’s choice as “the cleaner, more eco-friendly” solution to South Africa’s increasing energy crisis. Industrialists promoting this technology use the argument that it is more environmentally friendly because in comparison to the monstrous CO2 emissions being pumped into our atmosphere by South Africa’s dinosaur coal powered power stations, the apparently slick, dinky high-tech Pebble Bed Modular reactors (PBMRs) look cleaner (in theory—they have not been built yet.) Even the controversial existing Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) at Koeberg doesn’t look like it’s contributing to global warming at the rate of her smoke-bellowing coal counterparts. However there is much more to the process of creating nuclear energy than meets the eye. The mining and processing of nuclear fuel does in fact create CO2 emissions, but that is almost beside the point. Media reports about global warming, important as they are, have given the spin doctors for nuclear energy a way to use the public’s own fear to pull wool over their eyes. What about the nuclear waste?

If Eskom's nuclear plan goes ahead, tons of nuclear waste will be produced every year. A whole radioactive industry will be built around it, from the mining of uranium to the processing of the fuel, all of which produce forms of waste. Anything that comes into contact with radiation is regarded as nuclear waste. It all has to be transported along our roads to the SA’s main nuclear waste-dump – Vaalputs near Springbok, from the city highways to the slippery gravel tracks of Namaqualand, where it is very easy for trucks to overturn.

Components of spent nuclear fuel (High-Level Waste) remain toxic for millions of years. Although we have been making it for over 20 years, South Africa still has no official plan for the safe disposal of this waste. Billions of Rands have already been spent on developing the P.B.M.R. yet the safe disposal of the waste it will produce, not to mention the decommissioning of the actual plant, have not fully been accounted for. Obviously this is much longer than any company or government can account for.

If this waste is buried, it could leak into the underground water and poison the ecosystem around it, spreading radiation like a cancer. The earth is constantly moving and shifting. According to paleontologist Dr. John Anderson, “continents drift at the rate of the growth of your fingernails.” One drop of nuclear waste can cause cancer, so by planting nuclear waste in the earth, we could be said to be planting a malignant tumor in the earth’s skin. This is the central metaphor of my documentary: “Buried in Earthskin” which has been screened at the Earthnotes Festival.

The community who are the focus of the film, and which the film constantly returns to, is a group of Namakhoi women whose husbands are workers at the nuclear waste dump Vaalputs in Namaqualand. They live in a village (Nourivier) about 100 km away from the waste dump but are extremely worried about the effects of the radiation on their health. Their greatest concern is that the nuclear waste could be seeping into the underground water supply. They are disappointed by false promises made by the apartheid government who deceived them into believing that the place was going to be a game reserve. They are surprisingly well informed about radiation and its possible effects on the environment and their health.

The Namakhoi people of Nourivier live in grass-domed homes and follow many old ways in their lifestyle. They are aware of which plants to pick for medicine and are very close to the earth. The women bake bread once a week in wood fired ovens made of clay. According to the Namaqualand Recreation and Education Centre (NAMREC) based in Springbok, although white farmers were moved off land near the dump, many "coloured" communities were not taken into account when the nuclear waste storage facility, Vaalputs, was planned. All around the world, the earth’s first peoples have been the most scarred victims of nuclear technology. In South Africa nuclear workers have suffered health problems due to being exposed to radiation, but have not been compensated due to the fact that they have not been able to prove, nor been in a position to sue or prove that their health problems are due to being exposed to radiation. “The distances are too large and the politics too big,’ one worker told me. This particular character, an ex-Vaalputs worker living in Nourivier, confided that he was never given the results of blood-tests taken one day. He felt that his body was un-naturally worn down by his work at the waste dump. (He died within a year of the interview.)

In comparison to nuclear technology, the government has paid far less interest in researching sustainable renewable alternative technologies such as solar and wind power. The reason given for this is that they will not be as reliable for big industry as centralized power stations. If they were given a chance, researchers developing this technology could find ways to store the energy generated by solar and wind technologies. More focus should be put on ways to reduce our wasteful consumption of energy. (Recent loose screws at Koeberg plunged half the Cape into darkness last year and forced us into a new awareness regarding reducing our energy consumption.)

Respected economist author and academic Patrick Bond puts us in the picture about the history of government spending with regards to energy, with the figures he has at his fingertips: “The problem of priorities appears to be getting worse, not better.” He said “Expenditure on renewable energy was less than 0.5% of the DME budget in 2002/03…. Indeed, perhaps the greatest waste remains in the area of nuclear research and development.”
He explains that historically the nuclear industry has always consumed more than its share of the national energy budget. Ironically it was started during the apartheid era, when the National Party secretly built 6 nuclear bombs. (These were officially dissembled when the A.N.C. came into power. However this new surge of interest in the technology makes one wonder if there may be a second agenda.)

“First considered in the 1960s, South Africa’s nuclear industry began in 1974 with the construction of the Koeberg nuclear station“, Bond explains. “The plant was commissioned a decade later. Nuclear development consumed two-thirds of the DME’s annual budget but only generated about 3% of South Africa’s primary energy supply and 5% of electricity in 1997”, explains Bond. “Eskom has been working on the PBMR since 1993, and therefore has a strong financial interest in keeping the programme going”, he says.

If only the present Government in its position of power on this decision about the future of our country’s energy sources would remember Nelson Mandela’s words when he spoke at the opening to the 5th session of the World Commission on the Ocean: "Our policy must rest on the solid moral foundation of dedication to the primacy of people and their long-term well being. We have to be on guard against temptations of short-term benefits and pressures from powerful forces at the expense of long-term interests of all. We cannot afford to bargain away the birthright of future generations."

The fate of future generations hangs in the balance, especially those poverty stricken communities living near the places where they will be mining, processing, burning and burying the waste from those “dangerous uranium stones’’ as Namakhoi elder, Oom Japie Dekeurs, calls them. Why not invest in even cleaner solar and wind energy projects which could be run by the communities themselves, generating revenue by selling excess power into the grid when weather is favourable, and creating far less hazardous employment for locals? Such decentralized projects would really bring power to the people thus preventing the burning of the last few trees and cutting down on lung diseases such as TB agitated by smoke, not to mention the tragic runaway fires that we see too often. Why I wonder, are we so stuck in the nuclear rut?
For more information about Buried in Earthskin, please contact Helena Kingwill at

About Buried in Earthskin:
A young female journalist sets off on a road trip to Namaqualand to see where the nuclear waste is buried. She meets a group of Namakhoi women living near the nuclear dump. In an attempt to understand the government’s decision to invest in nuclear as apposed to renewable energy, Helena visits experts and Nuclear facilities all over South Africa in what becomes a spiritual as well as picturesque physical journey which takes place over two years.

Credits: Helena Kingwill 2004 South Africa 56min


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