Generations from now, there will still be no-go areas storing radioactive by-products of nuclear power production, writes Sarah Wild in the Mail and Guardian.
In 300 years, South Africa’s Vaalputs nuclear waste site – a 10 000ha reserve in the dusty Northern Cape – will be opened for unrestricted use. Until then, it needs to be guarded and monitored; no small feat considering that if the 1820 British settlers had buried nuclear waste on their arrival, we would still be guarding the site.
About 100km from the town of Springbok, a warm wind raises dust from the ground, which has not seen rain in many months. Eight metres underground, concrete and metal drums containing low- and medium-level nuclear waste are biding their time, as the natural and sparse shrubbery reclaims the surface of the trenches they were buried in.
This is one of the major question marks over nuclear technology: What do we do with the waste?
Time is “the only thing that renders radioactive waste harmless so, in a way, we have to manage time”, Ewoud Verhoef, the deputy director of the Netherlands’s nuclear waste regulator, told the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) scientific forum on nuclear waste last month in Vienna.
But not all types of nuclear waste are equal. At Vaalputs, which is operated by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), they only accept low-activity nuclear waste, says Willem Beukes, stakeholder manager at the facility. This includes contaminated items such as clothes and equipment from Koeberg, the country’s nuclear power station, and the research reactor at Pelindaba. On arrival by truck, the metal and concrete containers are inspected and, “if it does not meet criteria and is noncompliant, it is sent back”, he says.
This has happened before. In August 2012, the National Nuclear Regulator, which oversees nuclear activities in the country, suspended the licences of both Eskom and Necsa to deposit low-level waste at Vaalputs because of noncompliance. These licences have since been reinstated.
But the urgent question posed at the scientific forum in Vienna was what to do with the more dangerous high-level waste. For South Africa, with its plans to build a nuclear fleet to generate an additional 9 600MW of electricity, about 23% of the country’s power requirements, this issue is even more pressing.
Koeberg and Pelindaba’s high-level nuclear waste remains on site and is not moved. According to South Africa’s 2011 report to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, “used fuel from the Koeberg nuclear power station is currently stored in authorised used fuel pools on the site as well as in casks designed and constructed for storage of used fuel”.
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