Nuclear power plant and field of flowers. Picture: ISTOCK
Nuclear power plant and field of flowers. Picture: ISTOCK

When the word nuclear is mentioned images of atom bombs, the Fukushima disaster, flashing radiation warnings and nuclear-generated mutants come to mind. However, some two-thirds of the world’s population live in nations where nuclear power plants are an integral part of electricity production and industrial infrastructures.

Around the world, scientists in more than 50 countries use nearly 300 research reactors to investigate nuclear technologies or to produce radioisotopes for medical diagnosis, cancer therapy, insect eradication, domestic application, and x-rays for preserving fresh produce.

Nuclear energy currently provides approximately 11% of the world’s electricity and through Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town it powers most of the Western Cape and supplies approximately 4.4% of South Africa’s total electricity needs since 1984.

Most power stations use the same principles to generate electricity, with the only difference being the source of energy used to rotate the shaft of the generator. In thermal power stations, it is the steam produced by heat generated either by burning a fossil fuel, through nuclear fission or through concentrating solar energy.

Nuclear energy comes from the process of splitting the nucleus of an atom of uranium-235 releasing energy in the form of heat and radiation. This process is known as nuclear fission.

The fuel used in a nuclear power station is uranium. Pure uranium is a silvery, shiny, hard, heavy metal. South Africa also possesses sizeable uranium reserves and has an extensive uranium mining industry, making the country one of the important producers of uranium in the world. Uranium production in South Africa is a by-product of gold and copper mining.

NUCLEAR CULTURE

South Africa is well-equipped to have nuclear power stations and has a nuclear safety culture, with Koeberg having operated safely for over 32 years

Advantages of using nuclear as a source of energy are that nuclear power is safe and generating electricity from nuclear power does not lead to carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases that can damage the environment. In addition, the process produces small volumes of waste to dispose of.

We are all afraid of things and situations which we do not understand. Some people object to nuclear power stations because of a fear of radiation. It is worth noting that radiation starts decreasing immediately after the fission reaction has stopped and within approximately 10 years will have decreased by more than 95%. Others think that a nuclear power station would explode like a nuclear bomb. However, due to the very low content of fissionable material in the fuel, a nuclear explosion is impossible.

South Africa is well-equipped to have nuclear power stations and has a nuclear safety culture, with Koeberg having operated safely for over 32 years. The performance of the Koeberg power station has also consistently been one of the strongest within the Eskom fleet. It is also the cheapest energy provider in South Africa’s fleet. Nuclear does require high initial capital expenditure for construction but, operationally, nuclear offers one of the cheapest sources of electricity, rendering it more favourable than any fossil power generation.

Furthermore, Eskom has learnt significant lessons from its current new build programme that it can put to good use in the nuclear programme and to reduce the risk of schedule delays and cost overruns. It will also leverage its current relationships to ensure maximum delivery of socio-economic impacts of the nuclear build programme.

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