True cost: the externalities of South Africa’s current main electricity supply technology choices
When we talk about externalities, we mean that the true cost of something is not included, but is paid for by other people. A good example of this is nuclear power. The cost of your electricity does not represent its real cost as nuclear power is polluting along the entire value chain. If we were to add up the environmental and health costs of the effects of nuclear power, and include these in the price, our electricity bills would rise astronomically.
Nuclear power externalities exist along the full fuel cycle: from mining/milling, via the conversion of uranium, enrichment, fuel fabrication, electricity generation, interim spent fuel storage, (possibly) reprocessing, and finally high level waste disposal. The impacts from mining for uranium are more severe than those from mining for coal, and include air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and contamination of water.
There are serious externalities associated with waste disposal and decommissioning of nuclear plants, especially given the very long time frames associated with radioactive waste. Like the rest of the world, South Africa has no waste disposal site for high level waste or used fuel and the costs of building such a site are therefore unknown. Such costs will need to be borne by future generations and such sites will need to be maintained and monitored for hundreds of thousands of years.
The most serious externalities are associated with the potential for nuclear accidents. Although the likelihood of accident is low, the impacts in the case of accident – on the environment and people’s health – can be catastrophic.
In the event of a nuclear accident, the costs of environmental clean-up and human health impacts will fall on the state (and thus the taxpayer).
 This fact sheet was extracted from the Electricity Governance Initiative (EGI-SA) Smart electricity planning report for the SA civil society Energy Caucus 2013
Currently high level waste is kept on-site at Koeberg nuclear power station in the Western Cape.
Image courtesy of EcoBuzz.