THE concern group challenging the Thyspunt nuclear reactor has called on government to place a moratorium on all nuclear development in South Africa until the full extent of the Fukushima disaster is known. The call by the Thyspunt Alliance – a broad coalition of residential, cultural, environmental, tourism, fisheries, business and surfing interests in the Oyster Bay, St Francis, Humansdorp and Jeffrey’s Bay area – co-incides with the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, the historic nuclear melt-down in Ukraine.
Until the catastrophic events in Japan last month, Chernobyl’s April 26 1986 melt-down had ranked as the worst nuclear disaster in history. But the disaster at the Fukushima plant on Japan’s east coast, is now officially ranked 7, the same severity as Chernobyl.
The Fukushima melt-down began when the reactor took a direct hit from the tsunami which arrived on Japan’s east coast on March 10. Besides the 14300 confirmed dead and 12000 still missing from the tsunami, the destruction of the plant and subsequent explosion has left a severe contamination plume, the extent of which is still being established.
Thyspunt Alliance spokesman Hilton Thorpe said the Fukushima disaster “has reminded the world that nuclear power production is a hazardous activity”.
It may be some time before we know the full extent of the damage, and all the consequences, but nuclear protagonists who continue to seek to evade responsibility for Fukushima, are denying reality, he said.
“The undeniable fact remains that, despite full knowledge of the potential seismic and tsunami risk, and the extensive safety engineering design incorporated – the bottom line is that the system failed, with potentially catastrophic consequences.”
The events at Fukushima have endorsed the fact that nuclear contamination can be catastrophic, threatening life and health, and potentially rendering large tracts of land unfit for human habitation and seas unfit for harvesting, for decades, if not centuries to come, he said.
“This in turn has emphasised that there is no place for fragmented, superficial, inaccurate, incomplete or politically pre-determined impact assessments for such plants.”
A complete review is needed of not only what happened at Fukushima but also of safety criteria and plant design in the light of climate change – and consequent higher sea levels and more frequent and severe storms – and the apparent increased prevalence of earthquakes across the world.
The call for this review is already coming from governments and scientists alike, all over the world, he noted.
In particular, there has to be “an end to complacency regarding the disposal of high-level “spent fuel”, he said.
It is clear that a major cause of radio-active leakage at Fukushima was spent fuel becoming exposed to the air. This waste fuel was being kept on site until the radio activity was low enough for it to be moved. This is the model being used at Koeberg and it is the stated intention for Thyspunt.
But while the hazards of doing this have now been exposed, the idea mooted for Fukushima of cocooning it in concrete on site is equally unacceptable, as at some stage seawater will find its way in, he said.
So our moratorium in South Africa should also be used to establish if a secure site for this radio active waste can be found and, if so, where it should be.
Thorpe said disaster management planning around any envisaged nuclear plant has to be extremely rigorous, with sufficient attention given to public safety when assessing the viability of a site.
“This should include not only demographics and evacuation routes but consideration of natural factors such as, for example, prevailing winds.”
“A moratorium should be placed on all nuclear developments until the final outcome of the Fukushima disaster is known, until lessons learned from this disaster have been fully assessed and plant design and safety features have been modified to accommodate these new insights.”
He said that while this moratorium will be vital for South Africa as it considers the government’s stated intention to roll out a suite of nuclear reactors – the siting at Thyspunt is intrinsically untenable.
“You cannot guarantee the inherent safety of nuclear energy, so there has to be a safety management plan including an evacuation plan, that makes up for this.
“But with the prevailing wind that we have, no plan could work. With a 70-kilometre south-westerly blowing like there is today, you would have about eight minutes to get the people out, and that’s not enough.”