Counting the costs: nuclear


True cost: the externalities of South Africa’s current main electricity supply technology choices[1]

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[2]. 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).

[1] This fact sheet was extracted from the Electricity Governance Initiative (EGI-SA) Smart electricity planning report for the SA civil society Energy Caucus 2013

[2]Currently high level waste is kept on-site at Koeberg nuclear power station in the Western Cape.

Image courtesy of EcoBuzz.



3 responses to “Counting the costs: nuclear

  1. Johnathan kempston

    Sorry but can you give numbers for your claims, and to what are you comparing it to, solar with its arsenic or windturbines which causes more cancer than a nuclear plant does with its rare earth extraction. Dont believe me then go and look at the towns in China where these factories are. Lakes dead, animals dead. Now Koeberg has more species on site at present than what they had before construction started. The angles of the water intakes are perfect for some rare bird which i cant remember and koeberg is a nature reserves with antelopes and zebras.

    Finally on sunday, wind at Darling wind farm was 25 knots and those blades where not turning. PE has the same wind, how much electricity will it produce, i know i have video.

  2. Hi Jonathan, feel free to check out some of these sources if you would like to educate yourself.

    Click to access ANNEXURE-B-Model-Input-and-Assumptions-Sep2013.pdf,d.ZG4

    Also, the exclusion zone around Koeberg is not there so much for conservation purposes as it is for safety reasons. Unfortunately Koeberg stopped releasing the levels of radioactive emissions from their plant in 2002, but you can find the 2001 National Nuclear Regulator report at

    Have a nice day

  3. Pingback: Counting the costs: nuclear : One Percent for the Planet

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