NUCLEAR ENERGY AND THE FATE OF MANKIND
By. Dr. Mbita Chitala
Executive Director- Zambia Research Foundation
The study by the Zambia Council of Churches entitled “The Revelation: A Review of Ionizing Radiation Protection Act 2005”, offers a good starting point for our policy makers to reflect and take preventative action and address the dangers posed by uranium mining, milling and transportation in Zambia.
Uranium Mining in Zambia
Presently, Zambia has three companies mining uranium. The first company is the African Energy Resources (AER) which owns the Chirundu Mine in Kariba Valley and has outlined over 11.1 Mlb of U3)8 (5,035t) in resources at Nyame and Gwabe resource.
The second company is the Denison Mine Zambia Limited (DMZL) which owns the Mutanga and Dibwe deposits in Siavonga District.
The third company is Lumwana Mining Company (LMC) owned by Barrick Gold. The company mines uranium as a by-product of its copper mining at Malundwe and Chimiwungo in North Western Province. It has about 3800 tu indicated resources at 0.079% of u and 2570 tu in inferred resources.
Once mined, the uranium ore in rock form is taken to the uranium mill where the ore is crushed, mixed with water and ground into fine particles. The mixture is then put through a chemical procedure to purify it. This process produces uranium oxide U3O8 – a yellow compound called yellow cake which can be exported. In Zambia, we are still piling the yellow cake as no policy on exporting has yet been formulated.
Nuclear Fission Discovery:
The discovery of nuclear fission by the German Physist Otto Hahn in 1938 and the realization that the energy from fission could be used to produce a nuclear explosion, has become one frightening scientific discovery which if not well managed, can lead to the self annihilation of all mankind and life as we know it. The science behind all this is well understood. Fission occurs when a neutron enters the nucleus of an atom of uranium or plutonium isotopes. When fission occurs, the original nucleus is split (fissioned) into two nuclei called fission products. A self-sustaining fission chain reaction can be produced in this way. The larger the quantity of Uranium 235 or Plutonium 239 (this results when Uranium 238 absorbs some of the neutrons produced in the fission process to become isotope Uranium 239) that is fissioned, the greater the explosive yield of the nuclear explosion.
A fission or atomic bomb has only been used once in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th August, 1945 by the United States of America when more than 250,000 people were killed.
Nuclear fusion on the other hand, occurs when nuclei of hydrogen isotopes fuse together to form nuclei of helium. During fusion, neutrons are produced and energy is released. In a boosted weapon, these fusion neutrons are used to produce more fission in the Plutonium 239 and produce explosive power of up to 50 KT. The fission weapon in this case acts as a trigger in these hydrogen bombs or thermonuclear weapons. In 1962, the then USSR exploded one at its test site at Novaya Zemlya with an explosive yield equivalent to that of 3,000 Nagasaki weapons. These weapons have not yet been used to kill human beings.
There are about 30,000 nuclear weapons in today’s world. The USA and Russia each deploy about 9,000 nuclear weapons. The other countries with nuclear weapons include China (400), France (350), UK (200), Israel (200), India (60), Pakistan (35). The USA and Russia possess aggregate deliverable nuclear arsenal of about 19,000 warheads of almost 10,000 Mt. The total nuclear arsenal, including tactical weapons, warheads in stock comes close to 50,000 warheads and 15,000 Mt.
Furthermore, there are about 30 countries operating 438 nuclear power reactors for generation of electricity. These countries include South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Israel, Japan and so on. The dangers of breakdown of these reactors and endangering the life of human beings and life in general are best illustrated by the recent history of Japan at its Fukushima facility and earlier at Chernobyl in the Ukraine where nuclear fallout killed many people.
In addition to the nuclear countries mentioned above, North Korea and Iran have also been involved in active nuclear proliferation. The North Korean facilities at Yongbyon include a processing plant to remove plutonium from spent reactor fuel elements, a plant to make reactor fuel elements and two nuclear power stations.
Iran’s program are carried out in secrecy and has not been allowing inspections from the UN watchdog in Vienna. The UN system has placed Iran under sanctions and isolation. It is hoped the current talks in Vienna can succeed in persuading Iran to subject itself to international inspection to ensure that it abandons the idea of producing nuclear weapons. The claim that its program is for peaceful purposes needs to be tested by subjecting it to verifiable inspection.
For North Korea, it has always said that it retains the right to have nuclear weapons. This is a dangerous argument. The recent events in the Korean Peninsula where North Korea threatened to unleash its nuclear arsenal on South Korea and the United States, poses a challenge to mankind on the dangers of nuclear energy.
North Korea is an extraordinary closed and sensitive country. I last visited North Korea in 2002 when I accompanied the then Vice President Lupando Mwape on a state visit. North Korea has had a nuclear program since 1965 when it began operating a small nuclear research reactor at Yongbyon Nuclear Facility. At that time, Zambia also had a small reactor in Lusaka. Many countries operate these reactors, called , Research and Test Reactors - to produce radio isotopes for medical, industrial and agricultural use and training Physicists and Engineers. Radio isotopes are used in medicine to diagonize and treat diseases; in industry, to radiograph large structures; and in agriculture, to kill pests and sterilize male insects to reduce their numbers. The small reactor at the former Zambia National Council for Scientific Research appears to be inactive or it may have been decommissioned.
Possible Nuclear Armageddon
Our earth is a small spaceship in the universe which cannot survive a nuclear war, even for a limited one of 100Mt. If such is unleashed on the Korean Peninsula in anger for instance, calculations by scientists show that the dust and smoke will spread to engulf the whole earth carrying in its wake, a destruction of life unparalleled and shall imperil the future of humanity. Scientists have estimated that about 100Mt nuclear threshold is the currently defined as critical to produce a “nuclear night” – when air temperature will drop to below freezing leading to “nuclear winter” or the abrupt exceptionally harsh and prolonged cooling of the air over our earth- freezing all living things surviving nuclear fires.
The main consequences of nuclear war leading to ecosystems degradation include the following: Radiation shock which will range between 500-1,000 rads and will kill off all mammals and birds and cause serious damage to all plants; Huge fires would wipe out all forests and farms; Oxides of nitrogen and Sulphur will form into acid rain to devastate soils and waters; Enhanced UV radiation doses will damage the ozone layer which shields the earth from UV radiation from the sun and will suppress photosynthesis which in turn inhibit and damage any survived animal’s immune system and kill all bacteria in the surface layer of the soil.
The key international instrument to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons is the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As of today, a total of 190 parties have had ratified the NPT including the five nuclear powers. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003. Israel, India and Pakistan are also outside the NPT as they all doubt the effectiveness of the IAEA safeguards to verify compliance with the treaty.
Progressive human beings have consistently argued that nuclear weapons and warfare is a crime against humanity and must be abolished. The report in the Post Newspaper of 18 October, 2013 reporting that that Zambia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Mwaba Kasese Bota called for the ban and elimination of nuclear weapons is a progressive stand. It is gratifying to note that Zambia is state party to the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
There are other treaties that attempt to manage nuclear proliferation. The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material signed in 1980 by 145 state parties is one such other treaty. In Africa, there is the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty or the Treaty of Pelindaba which Zambia has since ratified.
However, Zambia has not yet adopted the “code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources” or the “Supplementary Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources”. Furthermore, Zambia has as yet to ratify the “Radiation Protection Convention, 1960 Number 115” and the “Occupational Cancer Convention, 1974, Number 139. The ratification of these conventions by Zambia has become necessary now as miners and other citizens at the various mines that are currently mining radioactive substances have become vulnerable to radioactive contamination.
The biggest challenge humanity faces is to abolish all nuclear weapons. It is possible to use nuclear energy safely to advance humanity’s civilization. However, this advancement does not include the development of self annihilation instruments such as atomic bombs.
In Zambia, the challenges we face are include the following:
1. We must ratify all the essential treaties as presented above in this essay.
2. With so much uranium, Zambia can start a peaceful and safe nuclear program to enrich Uranium 235 to be used in electricity generation, medicine and agricultural research. This will involve us investing in a conversion plant to separate isotopes of U 238 and U 235 and so on. We could then export this enriched uranium and earn a lot of foreign exchange.
3. Our country needs to come up with a policy on mining of uranium and other radioactive mineral ores. The current vacuum is dangerous as it allows mining companies such as the Lumwana Mine for instance to continue discharging radioactive tailings into the Lumwana river and contaminating the water without any safeguards. Worst still, there is no policy for the compensation of workers or citizens that may suffer contamination.
4. Zambia must streamline the eight pieces of legislation that currently address mining of radioactive substances.
5. The Radio Protection Authority which currently has only 4 employees from an establishment of 44 needs to be revamped.
6. It is important that the Radiation Protection Authority is also re-aligned from mere Hospital Administration to include other functions such as regulation of exploration, mining, milling and transportation of ionizing radiation materials. Currently, we do not have an institution that is tasked to regulate these potential dangerous activities.