"Nuclear energy creates quality jobs"
Head of Numsa's organising and collective bargaining Bafana Ndebele was one of the participants on a study tour to South Korea to look at its nuclear energy plants. Numsa Bulletin asked him to tell us what he learnt.
Can you tell us why you went to South Korea?The study tour to South Korea by trade unions, the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) and the nuclear energy regulator was to see how South Korea managed to become efficient in terms of energy and in that process create more jobs, especially quality, sustainable jobs.
They donâ€™t have coal. They import it all. Their power stations are very, very clean – you will think that it is not a power station. Their power stations are nearer to the sea so that they use the sea water to cool and so you donâ€™t see big cooling towers. There are less accidents and less contamination.
What about their nuclear power stations?They built them using technology from Westinghouse from US. They are starting from scratch in terms of nuclear.
They are manufacturing their own turbines, all the equipment. They are producing it under licence from Westinghouse.
Heavy industry benefits from that. Most of their firms are owned by the state, heavy industry included. In terms of the standardisation of processes, they have standardised them further than Westinghouse, and Westinghouse has allowed them to do that.
Initially it took them 5 years to build nuclear power stations. They have been able to reduce that time to 36 months.South Korea's energy mix
Hydro + renewables
Because they are all state-owned, has the government put a lot of money into nuclear power development?Yes it has ensured that the national bank of Korea does assist.
The tour was to show how we can do it in South Africa with the assistance from government and the private sector. (The South Korean government is the major shareholder owning 51% of KEPCO.)
I understand that Cabinet has approved the nuclear route. There were a lot of pictures when the president of France, Sarkozy, was visiting this country recently with French nuclear companies.
What is the current status with the bidders?As we understand it four bidders from US, South Korea, Germany and France have been short-listed. Bidding is supposed to be completed by the end of August this year.
Government has taken a decision that there is a need to go the nuclear route. If you take the South Korea experience there will be a lot of quality jobs created. We are not going to have blue-collar jobs there.
Will we have enough skilled people to take those jobs?South Korea has undertaken to develop exchange programmes with us.
They will take students for five years to South Korea and our government must support that system. We did put that in terms of our proposals to Cabinet. There should be quotas from each province that will start next year.
It will follow along the same lines as the exchange programmes in the health sector that take some students to Cuba to learn medicine.
But you can't expect a student that has been trained for five years to come back and run a nuclear plant?Within that three years there can be a mix of staff from Koeberg and new intake from universities just to specialise in this.
People that are working in nuclear power stations are trained specifically for that. Any mistake you make is going to kill people so it is critical that people are trained properly.
We think that government is on track. They are not saying that they are only going to rely on nuclear because we have an abundance of coal.
What does Korea do with its nuclear waste?We went to their nuclear fuel depot. They are producing this fuel – they keep the waste in drums and they have not yet found a place to bury them. So they still keep them in drums.
Did you see those drums?They are sealed in concrete. That place is highly secure, security is very heavy. You must remember that that waste has the potential to produce plutonium bombs.
I understand that you have also had a meeting with Num and with the department of minerals and energy. Can you tell us what happened in this meeting?A presentation was done by those working at Pelindaba and the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) (a new nuclear power reactor that is being developed). They indicated that because of the evolving technology, if nuclear energy is used for civilian purposes, it will not result in a 'Chernobyl'.
They argue that South Africa must enrich its own uranium instead of producing it and exporting it and bringing it back as refined uranium. They have done experiments with PBMR and are convinced that SA can enrich uranium.
Are you satisfied that the PBMR project is viable?From those that are responsible, they think it is going to work and they have gone to several countries where they have this technology. They are not doing this on their own.
One of the things that is facing us is those anti-nuclear lobby groups are distorting some of the information that is available because they donâ€™t want other countries to have this kind of energy for whatever reason.
We are aware that in Western Cape, Earthlife is very strong and is working with some of our comrades there that there should be no nuclear generation in the country but forgetting that if you enrich uranium here and sell it to those same countries that are using it, it will create jobs here. The Pelindaba site is going to be relocated to North West so that we can enrich uranium.
Are you satisfied that if these jobs of enriching uranium are created, that they are going to be safe? Remember there was talk of people that had worked in Pelindaba getting cancer and leukaemia and dying. Is it worth having a job that is going to kill you?
Safety measures will have to be put in place. Those people working with uranium in South Korea, do get contaminated but they are checked on a regular basis and there is continuous training to improve the safety of the workers and the working environment in general.
I think that we can be able to match the South Korean standard to ensure that workers are not contaminated.
If you work in those sites you need to be disciplined, you can't work as normal. Certain types of workers must work there.
We donâ€™t want people to go there and expose themselves deliberately with a view that they will get compensation – it is highly sensitive and dangerous work. We are not disputing that. But what is the point of having people from outside to run our power stations for us!
I am just saying that mining and enriching uranium is a dangerous job. Is it worth creating those jobs that are very dangerous?It is if you take precautions in terms of training and how they must protect themselves, put regulations in place so that they donâ€™t expose themselves to danger.
In terms of issues for congress, if you are saying that nuclear is already a done deal, what are the kinds of issues that regions should be talking about?We can still talk about nuclear, its best uses, as well as the best uses of renewables.
Maybe we can be in a position to influence government to have a better mix of energy, eg reduce nuclear and for example future houses be built with solar while fossil fuels and nuclear are used to grow the economy.
What about the terrible carbon emissions from coal-fired power stations like in Mpumalanga? Eskom must use that new technology to save the environment and the workers in those areas. Also power stations have a certain life span.
After you mothball those power stations, what happens to the workers and the environment that was polluted by the power station? It should be like a social plan.
Numsa is planning to hold a national workshop in August on energy matters in the lead up to congress to discuss all these issues.
Chernobyl disaster continues to wreak havocWhen the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded in the USSR in 1996, 56 workers were killed in the explosion. Residents in the nearby city of Pripyat had to be evacuated. Many thousands have died of cancer-related ailments since then.
To this day there is a 30km 'exclusion zone' where no-one is allowed to live. When the plume of radioactive smoke from the explosion drifted over large areas in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia it contaminated these areas, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of over 336 000 people.
Today the incidence of cancer and leukaemia is much higher in these areas than in other areas outside of the deadly plume's fall-outt.