The planned National Radioactive Waste Storage facility in Pilikwe village is a threat to Botswana’s national security, and vulnerable to missile attacks from South Africa ÔÇô the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) has warned.
In their submissions to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study of the Radioactive Waste Storage Facility, the BDF pointed out that the proposed project is near the South African border post and the site can be considered to be vulnerable.
According to the EIA study, copies of which have been passed to the Sunday Standard, the BDF raised questions such as: “Why is the facility on the surface rather than underground, which could be safer? Can the concrete walls being proposed be able to withstand a direct hit by a missile?” stating that, “the proposed location in Pilikwe Village is close to South African border. The site is thus considered vulnerable”.
The BDF also raised concern that there is need to verify all sources of radiation in Botswana as the current inventory might not be complete.
Another issue raised by the military is that if BDF is requested to provide security at the site, would they also be requested to provide security during the transportation of radioactive waste from source to the facility?
As a way of protest, a handful of Pilikwe residents did not welcome the Water Resources Consultants in their Kgotla meeting, charging that they had been engaged by the government in the multi-million pula proposed national radiation storage project.
The residents stated that they did not want the project to be built in their village because it might cause their children to produce offspring with birth defects.
In an interview with Sunday Standard last year, the Director of the Radiation Protection Unit, Stephen Williams, explained that “Radioactive waste poses a real danger to the public and the environment when it is not properly managed. Contact with radioactive waste without adequate knowledge can lead to radiation related injuries which can range, depending on the severity of the exposure, from skin burns to death.”
The list of common radiation sources in Botswana reads like scientific names from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which killed tens of people in the Ukraine. Common radioactive sources used in Botswana include Cesium 137, which results in increased risk of cancer. If exposures are very high, serious burns and even death can result.
One example of such high exposure situations would be the mishandling of strong industrial Cesium 137 source. It can also be found in nuclear reactor waste and accidental releases such as the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine.
Then there is Cobalt 60, which is also known to cause cancer. Exposure to gamma radiation from Cobalt 60 results in increased risk of cancer. Botswana also has a lot of Iodine 131. Radioactive Iodine can be inhaled as a gas or ingested in food.
Iodine 131 can cause nodules or cancer of the thyroid. The other common radioactive source in the country is Americium ÔÇô Beryllium 241 (AM 241), a man made metal produced from Plutonium. Am-241 found in the environment is a result of nuclear weapons testing. As a dust or fine powder, AM ÔÇô 241 can cause certain cancers. When swallowed, absorbed through a wound or inhaled it can stay in the body for decades. It concentrates in the bones, liver, and muscles exposing these organs to alpha particles.
Botswana has been under pressure to regulate the use of radioactive technology. For sometime, a number of member countries of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were refusing to do business with Botswana because although the country has been using nuclear technology for sometime, it was not regulated.
The IAEA is a United Nations agency that guards against nuclear proliferation and the adverse effects of radiological incidents. The IAEA led the nuclear weapons inspection in Iraq in the early 1990s.
In one case, a Botswana company missed production targets because a member state of IAEA in Europe would not send the Americium-Beryllium 241 source unless authority had been obtained from the regulatory body.
Botswana has for the past three years been in a rush to put together a regulatory body to protect the country from nuclear radioactivity. In its sitting, three years ago, Parliament passed the Radiation Protection Bill, 2006. The Radiation Protection Act provides for the safe use of atomic energy and nuclear technology in Botswana.
Stephen Williams, the director of the Radiation Protection Unit at the Ministry of Communications Science and Technology, said although the BDF has raised their concern on security issues, BDF was not well informed about the project.
He said most of the people had already built a negative attitude towards the proposed project but this was a major challenge to them as a department.
Williams said that the project will cost the government over P40 million and the facility is expected to be in use sometime around 2011.
He said they choose Pilikwe for several reasons, which include its central point, next to major hospitals as well as being near the proposed University of Technology.
Williams said the nation should not fear anything about the project as “it is less harmless as compared to a filling station”.
The headman of Pilikwe, Bokopano Keodibetse, said although the residents don’t want the proposed facility in their village, the government should continue consulting the villagers maybe they may have a change of heart.