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South Africa Takes The Lead In Nuclear Energy By Norris McDonald

South Africa is leading the way in developing the next generation of safe, reliable nuclear power plants. Pebble Bed Modular Reactors use the equivalent of 300,000 tennis ball sized mini reactor cores in a reactor vessel and helium, instead of water, as the cooling and heat transfer medium to produce electricity. These new plants are also 1/10th the size (100 megawatts) of current plants (1,000 megawatts), which further reduces operating risks. Eskom, South Africa's principle utility, provides 98% of the country's electricity and is ahead of other countries in developing this new technology. Eskom has been working on a 110-megawatt plant design since 1993. South African government authorities are now examining the feasibility of fully developing this technology. The new technology nuclear power plants and other recycling, reprocessing procedures should provide a safe, reliable, and almost inexhaustible source of electricity and entrepreneurial opportunities for South African and American blacks. Black South Africans and America's Black electorate should address the nuclear power issue and decide where it fits in our collective development.

America's construction of nuclear power plants halted after the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979. France, Great Britain, Japan, Russia and other countries have accelerated their nuclear power production while we have retreated. However, approximately 105 nuclear power plants have continued to operate, supplying about one fourth of U.S. electricity needs for the past 20 years. Coal, oil and gas-fired power plants convert heat energy to electrical energy. Combustion of a fossil fuel is used to boil water to turn a turbine that spins magnets around copper coils (or vice versa) to produce the electricity we use in our homes, businesses and other institutions. Products of incomplete combustion are emitted as air pollution from this burning process. By contrast, a nuclear power plant relies on a controlled self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction to generate the heat required to boil water for the generation of electrical power. Uranium is used in nuclear power plants as a heat source instead of coal, oil or gas. There are no products of incomplete combustion. Nuclear power and electric vehicles should become our technologies of choice because it is now generally accepted by the scientific community that burning fossil fuels from industries and automobiles have led to problems with negative health effects from smog, acid rain, global warming and global climate change.

Exelon, a U.S. energy company, is negotiating to buy 40 of South Africa's pebble bed modular nuclear reactors for $6 billion. Exelon also has a 13% stake in the South Africa pebble bed modular reactor program. Exelon serves more than 3.4 million electricity customers in Northern Illinois through ComEd and about 1.5 million electricity and 430,000 natural gas customers in Southeastern Pennsylvania through PECO Energy. Exelon Generation is one of the world's largest power producers and wholesale marketers and has access to more than 48,000 megawatts of electricity. Exelon Nuclear operates the largest nuclear fleet in the nation, the third largest fleet in the world. Exelon's ten stations - with 17 reactors - represent approximately 20 percent of the U.S. nuclear industry's power capacity. In December 1999, General Public Utilities sold Three Mile Island Unit 1 (Unit 2 is the one that partially melted-down), to PECO (now Exelon). TMI-1, which began commercial operation in 1974, is an 875 megawatt pressurized water reactor nuclear generating facility capable of meeting the electricity needs of a city the size of Philadelphia.

African American investors and South African entrepreneurs should establish partnerships and ownership in these new nuclear power ventures. A consortium of blacks, such as Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Russell Simmons and other large black-owned companies, could pool resources and invest in these new technologies. They could be part of an international team that would include Exelon and Eskom as partners. The Black electorate could gain equity in such a partnership through stock offerings. Thus, South Africans and blacks in America would not only become distributors and consumers of electricity, but also energy industry owners. The 30 million black South Africans and the 30 million African Americans should be conducting this sort of cooperative development on a massive scale.

Traditional environmentalists, along with arrogant management in the budding nuclear power industry, killed nuclear power expansion in America because of fears of radiation poisoning from nuclear accidents. The 1986 Chernobyl accident in the U.S.S.R also frightened the public. The Soviets did not have a containment dome on the Chernobyl plant. That is the equivalent of delivering gasoline to service stations in open-bed trucks with the driver smoking cigarettes. Three Mile Island had a containment dome that worked to contain uncontrolled radiation releases from the plant. The public also believes that these plants can blow up like nuclear warheads. They cannot and have not. Another misconception is that radiation releases pose an unacceptable risk to the public. The benefits of the current generation of nuclear power plants have far outweighed the risks of operation. The vigilance of the American environmental movement and regulators is merited just as it is with monitoring other hazardous materials. However, the fears that were generated by the Three Mile Island accident should now be moderated because the nuclear industry, although clearly not perfect, has established an impressive record of electricity delivery in the past 30 years. One fourth of all electricity in America comes from nuclear plants. Of course, Americans do not think about where their electricity comes from, just as long as appliances and lights work when the switches are flipped. It is time to revisit this technology. The BlackElectorate in America and blacks in South Africa should become owners in the development of new power generation.

One unique entry point for black entrepreneurs could be assisting in the conversion of plutonium and uranium from warhead triggers to fuel for nuclear power plants. America has fallen behind France, Great Britain, Russia and others in utilizing this mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. The process involves mixing plutonium oxide with uranium oxide to produce new nuclear plant fuel. A pilot plant is planned in South Carolina to provide MOX fuel for four nuclear units, owned and operated by a partnership between DukeEnegy and a French firm-Cogema, in North Carolina. South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons program when apartheid ended. One might debate the efficacy of this decision, but the fissile material from retired nuclear weapons is a useful resource. To the extent that America, Russia, European nations and other countries with nuclear weapons want to dispose of thousands of old warheads, the nuclear materials become valuable electricity generating resources. Facilities for converting the plutonium and uranium should be constructed in tandem with facilities for making pebbles for pebble bed modular reactors in South Africa and America. Utilizing MOX in pebble bed modular reactors would represent state-of-the-art nuclear power design and construction technology. We should also recycle depleted uranium from current nuclear power plants. American blacks and South Africans could lead these 21st Century developments. These technologies represent an almost inexhaustible source of electrical power.

Another entry point for black entrepreneurs in America and South Africa is development and marketing of electric vehicles. South Africa should become the Japan of electric vehicle exports. Today, scientist will tell you that if America retrofitted to hybrid and all electric vehicles, pollution from hydrocarbon-fueled electric power plants would virtually neutralize the clean air benefits. Electric vehicles powered by electricity from nuclear power plants would clean the air and reduce our dependence on imported oil. Entrenched old-money industries will not be the source of this innovation. They are locked into petroleum and internal combustion engine vehicles. South Africans and African Americans have an excellent opportunity to become nuclear power and electric vehicle industrialists.

The Thabo Mbeki Administration in South Africa and the Bush Administration should establish cooperative programs to accelerate the development of nuclear powered electricity. The Bush Administration wants to revitalize the nuclear industry in America. South Africa's industry and government, including the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, should partner with the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce to facilitate this development. South Africa is providing the demonstration of a new technology that could revolutionize electricity production. We are in a new America and converting from a petroleum-based economy to an electricity-based economy will enhance our national security. Oil will remain crucial to our overall economy, but it will not be an Achilles Heel in terms of our health (smog from cars in summer) and national security (reliance on imports for half of our 17 million barrels of oil use each day). Subsidies for promoting nuclear power should be linked directly to subsidies (dollar-for-dollar) for solar and wind power so that these other viable alternative technologies can be utilized to maximum advantage. Of course, the Black electorate is as locked out of developing alternative technologies as it is from the traditional energy industries.

Black South Africans have been locked out of energy industry ownership and development in South Africa. The Black electorate in America has been locked out of participation in American energy development. It is time for us to apply our knowledge and power to develop, own and operate the next generation of nuclear powered electricity facilities. America is the market. South Africa is demonstrating the technology. This is a great opportunity for 21st Century development and international partnerships.

African American Environmentalist Association

Norris McDonald

Monday, January 14, 2002

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