Wednesday, 03 August 2011 10:15

SA’s perceptions on nuclear must change – Dr Philip Lloyd

There is an ongoing debate about the safety of nuclear power, particularly in the light of the recent Japanese experience. 25º in Africa recently interviewed a South African nuclear physicist and chemical engineer, Dr Philip Lloyd, who had some interesting and controversial statements about unfounded negative perceptions of nuclear energy.

The first commercial nuclear power reactor in South Africa began operating in 1984, and now there are two nuclear reactors generating 5% of the country’s electricity. While the government’s commitment to the future of nuclear energy is strong, over and above financial constraints there is a major concern over the safety around the usage of nuclear power.

Dr Philip Lloyd believes that the history of nuclear power worldwide shows that it is indeed safe. “There have been only three accidents affecting the general public in thousands of reactor-years of commercial operation, and in only one of these accidents (Chernobyl) were some workers killed and the nearby population harmed. The benefits which flow from having large amounts of cheap, reliable power available are untold. You only have to look at the damage caused to the Southern African economies when enough power was not available to see the truth of this,” says Lloyd.

Japan’s nuclear strategy confirms its safety
“Japan is a country that has been devastated by the effect of a nuclear bomb, which is why I find it extraordinary that the country has been so forceful in pursuing their nuclear energy needs. This just confirms how safe the technology is,” says Lloyd.

Lloyd explains that Fukushima wasn’t a “disaster” – it was a horrible accident. “There were multiple natural disasters far in excess of anything that the country could have anticipated. It’s like the two planes that flew into the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 – nobody could have anticipated or prevented it. The Japanese have spent over US$40-million building a wall that would protect their nuclear reactors on the coast in the event of a tsunami, but the 2011 tsunami was much worse that anyone could have predicted. There are 55 nuclear reactors in Japan and only four of these were destroyed,” said Lloyd.

Fears of radiation are misunderstood
Lloyd explains that while it’s common to be scared of the invisible, our fears of radiation are often misunderstood. “I was recently on a panel at a nuclear conference and a representative from Greenpeace was saying that radioactivity is always a dangerous, bad thing. So I pointed out that bananas contain high levels of potassium, of which a certain percent is radioactive. Your body can handle certain amounts of radioactivity,” says Lloyd, before adding that large truckloads of bananas crossing the US border from South America often set off the border radiation detectors due to the radiation from banana potassium.

“Granite is also radioactive – everything from granite tombstones to the boulders on which the affluent Clifton suburb in Cape Town is built, has certain levels of radioactivity. The level of radioactivity in the granite in Clifton is actually higher than the edges of the current exclusion zone at Chernobyl,” says Lloyd.

Other countries want to host nuclear waste
To demonstrate how other countries’ perceptions towards nuclear waste differ from these of South Africans, Lloyd referred to a competition between two municipalities in Sweden (Östhammar and Oskarsh) who spent seven years competing for the right to host the world’s first high-level nuclear waste storage facility.

“There was no risk associated with the nuclear waste storage facility, and when the one town won, the other town protested. Not because they wanted to be seen as some kind of civic heroes, but because they don’t have the same negative perceptions that we have about nuclear energy and they knew that this nuclear waste storage facility would create a number of jobs for the community,” says Lloyd.

“The government has announced that we’re going ahead with building a nuclear fleet. While some concerns have been raised, we’ve got very little alternative if we want to move away from coal. There are particular sites that have been earmarked for nuclear reactors, but there are action groups that have a not-in-my-backyard mentality. There is definitely something wrong with our perception of nuclear energy and the benefits, safety and reliability surrounding this technology,” concludes Lloyd.

25º in Africa would like to give full acknowledgement and thanks to Dr Philip Lloyd, who generously contributed information for this article.