The South African government wants to build, what it claims is, a safer type of nuclear reactor. Pebble-bed reactors use different fuel than nuclear facilities currently online. What’s more, the government says, pebble-bed reactors are smaller and cheaper to build. They may be a way to supply developing nations with cheap power. But critics say the claim about safety is unproven. From Cape Town, Terry FitzPatrick reports.
CURWOOD: Whatever the future mix may be for renewable energy, engineers in South Africa are developing an ambitious plan to expand the role of nuclear power. They’re hoping to build small scale nuclear plants throughout the world, leading to what some are calling a nuclear renaissance. Living on Earth’s Terry Fitzpatrick has been taking a closer look.
(WAVES HITTING SHORE)
FITZPATRICK: There’s a heavy surf outside Cape Town, and a rainbow in the cloudy sky. Along the storm swept beaches of Africa’s southern tip you’ll find some of the world’s most rugged coastal beauty.
(HUMMING OF KOEBERG ELECTRIC STATION)
FITZPATRICK: You’ll also find the only nuclear power plant on the African continent. The Koeberg Electric Station, two concrete containment buildings, with atomic twins inside.
DE VILLIERS: We take in water at the rate of 80 tons per second. It will fill up an Olympic size swimming pool in, literally, 30 seconds. Poof, you’ll have all your water in there (chuckles)…
FITZPATRICK: Karen D e Villiers is the spokeswoman for Eskom, the government-owned company that built the Koeberg plant 18 years ago. She’s guiding reporters on a hard hat tour.
[SOUND OF PUMPS]
FITZPATRICK: Past the powerful pumps that suck in ocean water to cool the reactors.
[POUNDING OF TURBINES]
FITZPATRICK:Past the giant turbines that use the heat of an atomic chain reaction to generate electricity.
[MORE PLANT SOUND]
FITZPATRICK: Koeberg looks like a typical, large scale nuclear plant in the United States. But Eskom is hoping to pioneer a new type of atomic facility here. The new reactor will be radically different. It’s much smaller, generating just a tenth of the power of a traditional plant. It uses helium instead of water to cool the atomic core.
DE VILLIERS: Helium is a very nice gas. It’s what they call an inert gas. It doesn’t pick up any of the radioactivity. So it goes in clean, it comes out clean. So if you have a leak, it’s not a problem.
FITZPATRICK: Another pebble-bed innovation is a new type of nuclear fuel. Instead of traditional fuel rods with exposed uranium, the new plant will use uranium pebbles the size of tennis balls. Each pebble is coated with protective layers of graphite and silicon carbide. Ms. De Villiers says this coating will prevent the fuel from overheating. She says a nuclear meltdown is physically impossible.
DE VILLIERS: And that is why we talk about it being inherently safe. If you had to lose all the helium which cools down that reactor, you had a break on the part, the guards could actually walk away from the reactor, leave it for two days, it would grow a little bit hotter. But we could come back three days later, clean it up, it would be a hell of a mess in the station, but it would not affect you or me or anybody off the site.
FITZPATRICK: Conventional nuclear plants need emergency cooling systems and containment buildings to isolate the reactor from the environment. But engineers say the newer, smaller design--known as a pebble-bed--won’t need the same level of protection. And that’s part of what makes them attractive. With less of a need for expensive safety equipment, pebble-bed plants can be built in just two years at a fraction of the cost of a conventional nuclear station.
KADAK: It will, in fact, revolutionize, I think, the way we produce electricity.
FITZPATRICK: Nuclear engineer Andrew Kadak has been working on pebble-bed designs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
KADAK: People are desperately looking for emission-free energy sources. And as energy demand will grow, as developing nations such as China, seeks to expand its per capita electricity consumption, India, the entire continent of Africa, people are going to need a way to produce electricity that doesn’t pollute our planet. And nuclear can do that.
FITZPATRICK: South Africa is a case in point. It’s anticipating an acute energy shortfall beginning in 2006. Right now, the country depends on coal for 90 percent of its electricity. Eskom is developing wind and solar sources, but the company wants to increase its nuclear capacity to help close the gap. Ultimately, Eskom and its partners hope to sell hundreds of pebble-bed plants worldwide. The problem is convincing the public that many reactors are safer than the old style plants made infamous by the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Again, Andrew Kadak.
KADAK: We shouldn’t judge the future by the past. We’ve learned a great deal about how nuclear power plants work. And all these lessons are being applied to these advanced designs to make them more technologically solid. So, yes, we are at a crossroads. And if we can make these plants economic and competitive to natural gas or other sources, they will, in fact, be deployed worldwide.
FITZPATRICK: Not everyone believes the assurances of the nuclear industry, least of all, some of the people who live near Eskom’s existing facility.
C. MENTOR: If you look over here, here’s the plant, that’s Koeberg plant.
FITZPATRICK: Clarence and Julie Mentor live a couple of miles from the site where the new reactor may be built. They’re leaders of the local development forum in the township of Atlantis. Clarence Mentor is worried about the radioactive wastes that the pebble-bed will generate, which will be kept on site. He’s also concerned about the integrity of the reactor building.
C. MENTOR: As we’ve seen during the attack on the World Trade Center, a plane can penetrate a building. So, if there’s no containment building, it’s going to be very worrying to us.
FITZPATRICK: Julie Mentor thinks her community is being used as a guinea pig for unproven technology.
J. MENTOR: Atlantis is so small, and we do not have the resources to really cope with any emergency, especially as serious as with nuclear. I can’t imagine 100,000 poor people who don’t have cars, how they will ever be removed from an area.
FITZPATRICK: Scientists in Germany and the U.S. have been experimenting with pebble-bed research reactors for decades. They say, all but one ran smoothly, and the trouble at that plant involved an oversized reactor and mechanical design flaws, mistakes they promise not to repeat in South Africa.
Still, the safety questions persist. Professor Kadak at MIT thinks the only way to settle the debate is to build a full scale pebble-bed plant and try to melt it down to prove it can’t be done. He’s asking Congress for half a billion dollars to run the experiment at a government facility in Idaho.
KADAK: I’ve called our approach the politically correct reactor, which is some people smile about. But what we want to do is demonstrate the safety. Not just tell people about the safety, but demonstrate it actually by conducting such a test of losing all coolant and watching nothing happen.
[WAVES ON BEACH]
FITZPATRICK; Back on the beach beside the Koeberg plant, Charlene van de Merwe is walking with her dogs and son. They come every day when the migratory whales are here.
VAN DE MERWE: We saw 13 whales out here the other day.
FIZTPATRICK; What kind?
VAN DE MERWE: The Southern Right Whales.
FITZPATRICK: Ms. Van de Merwe lives about a mile from where the South African pebble- bed project might be built. She is ambivalent about it.
VAN DE MERWE: On the one hand, this Koeberg is a good idea because it provides power to people that wouldn’t normally get. And if they make more, more people would have electricity and not freeze to death in all this rain.
FITZPATRICK: But Ms. Van de Mewre wonders if the risk is worth it. She looks out at the ocean, and then at the Koeberg plant.
VAN DE MERWE: It’s scary, I think, because we will be incinerated if anything goes wrong here, especially if it’s an experiment thing. There’s a lot of people that live here.
FITZPATRICK: The South African government is expected to decide by the end of the year if the Koeberg pebble bed reactor may be built.
For Living On Earth, I’m Terry FitzPatrick in Cape Town.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
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