“One small pellet of uranium fuel provides as much energy as a ton of coal – without generating greenhouse gases. But it’s so dangerous it can never, ever be thrown away.
“The main disadvantage if nuclear energy … is you have to keep an eye on it (the pellet) for the next 10 million years”, explained Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, this week.
Processes such as nuclear fission created hundreds of new materials that were “intensely radioactive”, he said.
“We do not know how to destroy or neutralise these wastes. Nuclear wastes are dangerous for millennia, even millions of years.”
Edwards was a speaker at the International Nuclearisation of Africa Symposium held in Joburg, and organised by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear war (IPPNW) – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – the African Uranium Alliance and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE).
The symposium, said organisers, focused on the impact of uranium mining on health and the environment and renewable energies.
Disposing of nuclear waste equated to “abandonment” and this approach was not “scientifically certain”, said Edwards.
“Radioactivity cannot be shut off. Science has no way to slow down, speed up or stop the rate of radioactive emissions. That’s why radioactive waste is a great unsolved problem.”
Humans, he believed, had never safely disposed of anything. “That’s why we have a nuclear waste problem.”
Professor Andreas Nidecker, a member of the IPPNW board, said its focus was on the abolishment of nuclear weapons, but it was also interested in the entire nuclear chain.
“In this regard, uranium as the resource for both nuclear energy and nuclear bombs has been our concern for years. Uranium-containing ores are a by-product of gold mining.”
Edwards said radioactive materials entered air, water and soil, and had distinct pathways in the human body. “They get into fish , water and plants, animals and humans. A small fraction of the population will develop cancer, years later. Infants and children are especially vulnerable.”
There were “hundreds” of radioactive poisons with distinct biological pathways.
“At low levels, radioactive does not attack humans directly – it damages cells. A population is like an ocean of cells. A fraction of those cells will develop into cancer.
“But there is a latency period – the onset of disease may happen years or decades after exposure.”
Chronic radioactive exposures at low does increased the incidence of cancer, leukaemia, genetic damage, strokes, heart attacks and other blood diseases, as well as low intelligence in young children, Edwards pointed out.
Citing gold mining on the Witwatersrand and uranium mining he said 85 percent of the radioactivity in the ore was left behind in the tailings.
“Uranium wastes (mill tailings) stay hazardous for 500 000 years. Contamination spreads by wind, rain, erosion, animals and excavations.”
Mariette Liefferink, of the FSE, said the world has become “sober to the unimaginable power of uranium after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (in world War II), the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima.
“In view of the globally expanding use of renewables, South Africa has the chance to become the African leader for a sustainable energy future and this at a fraction of the cost and fewer risks compared with a nuclear power system.”
Mycle Schneider, an independent nuclear expert, told delegates that nuclear’s position in the power market was “increasingly threatened by a shrinking client base, increasing production costs, stagnating electricity consumption and ferocious competitors, especially from the renewable energy sector.”