Fission City: Cape Town's Utopian Nuclear Future
The Ecotopia 2121 Project explores the super-ecofriendly futures of 100 real world cities across the globe. The latest city to be added to The Ecotopia 2121 Project is Cape Town, South Africa.
As South Africa ponders its energy problems in the mid-21st Century, offers of assistance come thick and fast from international friends, Russia and China. Like South Africa, they are members of the BRICS group of top emerging economies, and they offer to give free uranium to South Africa which they’ve mined from nearby Namibia. Russia and China also propose to build cheap ‘at-cost’ nuclear plants for South Africa, in exchange for some favorable investment help in Africa.
If Russia or China can gain a nuclear beach-head here in South Africa, they might likely make future sales throughout the entire continent.
The Russians and Chinese are likely to focus-in on South Africa because it was the first (and so far only) African nation to build commercial nuclear plants. The South African government is also currently testing the waters to see if it is possible to expand its nuclear sector.
In this scenario, Russia’s offer would involve building the nuclear plant in Namibia then transferring the electricity into South Africa. The Chinese proposal would ship processed uranium from Namibia to a nuclear plant which is set-up right next to a major South African city. This second proposal would save money on infrastructure cost and Cape Town is touted as the preferred host site.
Because the Chinese proposal is cheaper, this is the option South Africa chooses and in the late 21st century a huge sprawling nuclear complex is built in the suburbs of Cape Town. Both South Africa and China herald the project as transforming Cape Town into a Green Energy City since nuclear power plants produce no carbon dioxide and they will enable Cape Town to phase out their coal-burning plants.
Many South Africans are weary about nuclear energy being classed as Green but the President is convinced that the nation has no time to “experiment with untested renewable energies”. The danger of global warming, he says, is too imminent for that: “We need a fully-developed carbon-less energy source and we need it now!”
Nuclear energy is not going to rescue the world from global climate change. It is true that nuclear power stations produce minimal carbon dioxide during their operational phase -- the phase when uranium rods are sitting in a reactor working to produce electricity. Yet, to get uranium into a reactor in the first place requires that great quantities of carbon dioxide be emitted through the long and complicated processes of uranium mining, uranium enrichment, and the construction of suitable power plants. Also, at the back-end of the nuclear cycle, when spent uranium rods need to be disposed of, and when plants have to be decommissioned, dismantled, and decontaminated, here too fossil fuels are also used in massive amounts.
It is true that if you add up all the greenhouse gases that are produced to commission and de-commission a medium-sized nuclear power plant in business, it still comes out lower than the emissions from a medium-sized coal plant. However, if we compare nuclear plants to a similar-sized renewable energy project, say solar or wind power, then nuclear power is five times more polluting.
Alas, none of this may stop the South African and Chinese governments from pushing for Nuclear New Build together later this century. Yet in order to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions enough to avert massive climate change at a global scale by 2121, a Nuclear New Build strategy would need at least two-thousand new nuclear reactors built worldwide within the next decade. This is a huge number when we note that there are only some 400 reactors operating today which were built over a long sixty year period. Each power plant takes a decade to get going, from the breaking of new ground to the production of electricity. If there are public reactions against the plant, a certainty in all democratic nations, you can add another ten years for consultation and plant re-design.
The only nation in the world at the present time with impetus to invest in large-scale Nuclear New Build is China. But China also has very dodgy safety standards and usually rides roughshod over both public sentiment and risk concerns; so a crazy full speed-ahead Nuclear New Build by China is bound to result in a large-scale nuclear accident, sometime. It might seem cheap for South Africa to plop a Chinese nuclear power plant next to Cape Town but it certainly will not be safe. Nor, probably, will Cape Town residents be as quiescent as China’s citizens.
But even if everything is a success, even if accidents don't happen, and construction isn’t delayed, and public protests do not erupt, and the cost-overruns can be managed, a massive Nuclear New Build program will still create environmental problems by producing huge amounts of nuclear waste. In the future, China may promise to ‘re-patriot’ this waste for a fee but this will still mean that the waste will be stored in Cape Town for decades, contaminating water supplies and inviting nuclear terrorist attacks, before finally the nuclear waste is taken by China (and probably dumped in an abandoned Chinese-owned uranium mine in Namibia).
So, how could a huge sprawling dangerous and polluting nuclear plant built in the suburbs possibly create an Green Utopia out of Cape Town? The answer is obvious. Do not turn it on! Sure, billions of dollars will have already been sunk into the project by then. And, sure, hundreds of millions more will have to be paid to China for ‘breach of contract’. But these costs are but a fraction of the cost of managing all the risks and dangers and pollution that are likely to occur over the lifetime of the plant if it is turned on.
Some of the author's written works on the nuclear industry:
Marshall, A. (2019) Godzilla and its Evolving Environmental Message, The Conversation, May 2019.
Marshall, A (2012) ‘Indonesia Should Not Develop Nuclear Energy’, Journal of Geography and Regional Planning, Vol 5, Issue 1, Jan 4th, 2012. Marshall, A. (2011) ‘Should Thailand go Nuclear?’, Journal of Asian Public Policy, Vol 4, Issue 2, pp.235-240. Marshall A. (2011) ‘The Middle Ground for Nuclear Waste Management: Social and Ethical Aspects of Shallow Storage’, International Journal of Technoethics, Vol. 2, pp1-13.
Marshall, A. (2008) 'Leaving Messages about Our Radioactive Waste for Future Generations', in A. P Latiffer, ed, Nuclear Waste Research, Nova Publishers, pp37-46. Marshall, A (2007) 'Communicating with Future Generations about our Nuclear Waste Legacy', Futures Research Quarterly, pp 65-75.
Marshall, A. (2007) ‘Questioning Nuclear Waste Substitution’, Science and Engineering Ethics, Vol. 13, pp. 83-98.
Marshall, A. (2006) ‘Dangerous Dawn: The New Nuclear Age’, Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth: Melbourne. Marshall, A. (2005) 'The Social and Ethical Aspects of Nuclear Waste', Electronic Green Journal, Issue 21, Earth Day Issue.
Marshall, A. (2005) ‘Questioning the Motivations for International Repositories for Nuclear Waste, Global Environmental Politics’, Vol. 5, No. 2, May 2005, pp. 1-7.
And check out this informative documentary film called Atomic Africa