10-YEARS AFTER FUKUSHIMA DISASTER, SOUTH AFRICANS SPEAK OUT AGAINST NUCLEAR
“The ongoing issues from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, which happened ten-years ago this month (11 March), is a stark reminder of the many compelling arguments against any new nuclear for South Africa.” So says the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute’s (Safcei) and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg. Interested and affected communities also raised these arguments with the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) – at the Nersa hearings that were held on 23-24 February – to challenge the government’s proposal to add another 2500MW nuclear to the country’s energy mix.
According to Safcei’s Executive Director Francesca de Gasparis, “There is still too little relevant information available in the public realm. We need to know how these plans could affect us. Even when requested via official means, information is either missing or unclear. In its role as energy regulator, NERSA must take the principles of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) into account in its decision on whether to concur with the Minister’s determination for more nuclear energy. To achieve the sustainable development of our electricity supply infrastructure that seeks to benefit all South Africans, a transparent cost-benefit analysis should be conducted to ascertain the feasibility of new nuclear generation capacity. This has not been done.”
“Minister Gwede Mantashe has made the decision to procure 2500MW new nuclear, without demonstrating its affordability or necessity. Firstly, the latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) of 2019 did not include new nuclear energy as a requirement to meet our energy needs. Minister Mantashe at least should have afforded Nersa with credible and up-to-date information for consideration, which then should be made available, along with independent research demonstrating need and cost-benefit, to the public to enable informed public participation and decision making,” says de Gasparis.
Earthlife’s Makoma Lekalakala adds, “South Africa cannot afford to waste any more money on costly nuclear experiments, such as with the failed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor in the early-2000s. Not only did that initiative not produce a single unit of energy, it cost taxpayers in excess of R10-billion. This kind of wastage of government funds, in our CoVid reality and after the devastating budget delivered by the Minister of Finance, will cripple our country.”
In 2017, Earthlife and SAFCEI took the government to court over the last nuclear deal, which was ruled unconstitutional and unlawful. By doing this, these organisations and their community partners saved the country from a R1-trillion nuclear deal that would have completely bankrupted the country. If we consider how the government has conducted itself in the past, on top of the lack of transparency that we are seeing now, the current developments in nuclear energy do not instil a sense of confidence that this government will act in the interests of all South African citizens by insisting on more nuclear energy to SA.
Lekalakala says, “The idea that affordability can only be determined by ‘testing the market’ through procurement, as was suggested at the Nersa hearings is putting the cart before the horse. Affordability is exactly what we need to know in order to determine if the country can afford it. We believe that if the Minister’s proposals could be robustly interrogated with the data on which they are based, that it will become even more glaringly obvious that nuclear energy is a bad idea for SA. Therefore this information must be in the public realm before the determination and the procurement process has started. If, as according to independent research, nuclear energy is found to be more than double the cost of other energy sources, then the government will have find it made the wrong choice, and the procurement will be very difficult to stop, and more money that could have been used for much needed basic electricity, more affordable energy would have been squandered.”
According to Peter Becker of the Koeberg Alert Alliance, ten years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the price tag for clean-up continues to rise, now estimated to be R2.8 trillion. Radioactive water is accumulating at over one hundred (100) tons per day, and despite hundreds of tanks which have been installed on the site, some of this water is being released into the sea.
“In South Africa, as a result of Eskom’s legacy of poor maintenance of its coal fired plants, we now sit with rolling blackouts, or ‘load shedding’. Recently, the cracks detected in the containment building at Koeberg have become cause for concern, particularly since Eskom is attempting to keep secret the extent of the damage, and progress of repairs. Therefore, the plan to extend the life of this deteriorating plant by more than two more decades, amounts to an unjustifiable risk, especially in light of Eskom’s historic inability to do effective maintenance. It appears NERSA has been exposed to a very one sided view of the benefits of nuclear power and is ignoring the reality of the economics as well as the risks of nuclear power,” says Becker.
The organisations believe that Nersa should do some of their own research to corroborate facts presented, then apply themselves to make the most sensible decision. If they do this, they believe that Nersa will come to the inevitable conclusion that nuclear energy is an absolutely bad idea for South Africa, as it is a lifetime commitment that it will continue draining money, long after the power plants have closed.
Prof. Steve Thomas, who contributed to the joint submission says, “In light of SA’s experience and in the face of the ‘climate emergency’, we cannot justify nuclear or any energy options that will come with a high price tag, but would be slow to implement and may not even deliver anything in the end. The time has come to invest in more renewable energy that is already proven to be safer, cleaner and more sustainable, and can come online much quicker, on top of being more affordable. Renewable technologies are developing rapidly, like off-shore wind, for example, are now competitive and proven.”
Here are some comments from communities and people of faith, from around the country:
Archdeacon Dr Mark Marais from the Anglican Church of Southern Africa Karoo, Graaff Reinet:
“Neither Eskom nor Nersa has provided the public with adequate information around both the management of Koeberg or further nuclear development in the country. The public does have competencies, which should not be ignored, to evaluate the impact assessments and other research, and we should be afforded the opportunity to scrutinize it. However this research is not adequately available in the public domain. From this standpoint, it seems government just expects the public naively and blindly trust the decisions made by these organisations, while neither entity have adequately demonstrated its own competency to do so. We have no confidence in Eskom as the national energy provider. It is the only company in the world that asks customers to use less of their product. Eskom is a classic tale of incompetence and it is sheer luck that keeps us from a major failure at Koeberg.”
Cecil Pieters from the Buddist faith Elsies River:
“There is always a choice between good and evil. Pick the good even if it comes with extra costs! We cannot be convinced of the benefit of nuclear energy. The building of new nuclear plants goes against international trends. The dangers of nuclear fallout and waste far outweighs any immediate benefit. As things stand we are not willing to negotiate away the legacy of our children for a few crumbs of jobs and a fleeting moment in the limelight. We have been here for thousands of years and we wish to stay here for many more.”
Andre Naidoo Plumstead Khoi community:
“Government, along with the pro-nuclear lobby, like to make promises when they want to do their big projects, only to have our trust and land abused. Where are the jobs, the infrastructure and prosperity that was promised when they established the waste facility at Vaalputs? For us this is just another smokescreen and more lies but that does not work on us anymore. We know now that nuclear energy plants are not major employers. No large cities or metropolitan areas were built near or around a nuclear plant, in the years of Koeberg’s existence. We have heard it all before, in other grand plans from government that have not been realised.”
Celeste Esau from the Cape Town Unitarians Manenberg:
“We believe that Nersa has a responsibility to come into our communities, not with a pro-nuclear nor anti-nuclear stance, but should endeavour to give us ALL the facts and realities about nuclear energy, then we will make up our own minds. It has always been our belief that the South African government should keep her citizens informed about the advantage and disadvantage of everything they embark upon. We would therefore welcome any kind of input that could further help us to understand the industry so that we could make informed decisions.”
Andy Pienaar representing the Northern Cape Community Namaqualand:
“We believe that the money planned for spending on nuclear energy would be much better spent on restoring the dignity and status of our first indigenous people, to help them restore our way of living and to give us access to our means of survival. All we ask of NERSA is to not threaten our peaceful existence with a technology that is of little value to us, as the end product will be exported to other areas of the country. It is the duty of the nuclear developers to provide the cost-benefit analysis and NERSA to ensure that it is done, together with other non-econometric analyses to establish whether nuclear is in the public interest. It is not a question of nukes or not, it is a question of informing the public in an honest way, without being contrived in any way.”
Wellington Sibanda from United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA): Durban
“In its questioning, Nersa falsely claims that, since 1984, there have been no challenges at Koeberg, and that the plant is managed in a responsible manner, which they say should give us confidence that new nuclear will also be well-run and provide energy. Well, it is absolutely untrue that there have been no incidents at the nuclear power plant. We feel that Nersa is trying to create a false sense of security, especially since we know that there have been incidents. Koeberg has a high security status so much is kept from the public. Incidents with regards to the storage of waste, (low, medium and high level). So, Nersa cannot claim that nothing has ever happened nor ever will.”
Abel Motloung (Vaal Region, Gauteng):
“Nuclear is an expensive technology. Already, so many South Africans cannot afford electricity. Why then does the government want to spend money on something that will just end up making our electricity more expensive?”
Zodwa Rannyadi (Soweto, Gauteng):
“We do not know much about nuclear. We need more education about it. From what I understand, it takes a lot of water, which we do not have much of here in South Africa. I’m afraid that nuclear will cause more damage and add more burden on the women of this country. Government should be talking about nuclear every day, so that we can understand it. Even when our Councillors hold meetings in our communities, they do not say anything about nuclear.
Energy decisions must be in the people’s best interest. With nuclear, we have too many people from outside who will get jobs here. Where will be the jobs for the local people? We want renewable energy that is socially-owned. It worries me, as a woman in South Africa, that electricity is becoming too expensive. I now have to mix the different sources of energy, for example to cook. I only use electricity now, to put the lights on. If government chooses nuclear, how will it affect what we pay for electricity? Already the price keeps going up. Nuclear is too expensive and will lead to raised electricity tariffs.
Instead of using nuclear, let us use nature energy – like solar, wind and biogas digester (which turns bio-waste to energy that can be used for cooking). It is clean. And I believe it will create more jobs for communities. I am involved in some RE projects. From what I have seen, electricity costs have dropped for schools that are using this technology. Even the biogas digester makes a big difference.”
Nompumelelo Madubane, Bonkgono Community Project – Orange Farm, Gauteng:
“2020 was the worst year in South Africa. We had to deal with the threat of the CoVid virus and the restrictions of the lockdown, while living with load shedding. And each time it is the poor communities that are most affected. How much does a KWH from nuclear cost? How sure is government that poor communities will be able to afford nuclear? We already cannot afford electricity now. We owe Eskom as we speak. On top of this, no-one ever comes to our poor communities, like Orange Farm where I come from, to share information about nuclear energy.
I say NO to nuclear because we can meet our energy goals with renewable energy. Why not focus on renewables because they are cheap and not harmful. In townships we see many people turning to renewables, such as solar panels. So, our government needs to support us in renewables. Stop putting profit before people.”
Ulrich Steenkamp, a youth from the Climate Justice Action Group (CJAG) in JHB, Gauteng:
“Firstly, South Africa is not financially able to afford a new nuclear energy build. It is currently the most expensive form of electricity generation.
Another key issue is that there is always so much secrecy around nuclear, the operations and even the international contracts. This is problematic because, for example, while the proposed extension of the lifespan of the Koeberg nuclear power plant is still uncertain, Parliament as well as many stakeholders in the energy sector were not aware that Eskom and DMRE secretly acquired new steam generators.
Then there is the myth that nuclear is a carbon-neutral technology. However, when you consider the entire process – from mining the uranium ore to disposal of the spent fuel rods – nuclear energy is actually very energy-, water- and carbon-intensive. By only focussing on the reactor, ignores all of the carbon emissions coming from nuclear chain.
Koeberg is due to be decommissioned in 2024, however, government has decided that the ageing power station will have to operate for an additional twenty-odd years. As a result of poor maintenance at Koeberg, there have been recent reports of both radiation leakage as well as a crack in the structure. It is said that Koeberg meets international safety standards. But, I would not trust those standards if cracks and leakages are permitted.
However, the biggest problem with nuclear energy is that there is no way to store nuclear waste for extended periods of time. The spent fuel rods will be emitting radiation for many generations after we all have passed, and because we do not know how to safely store this radioactive waste (especially the high-level waste). The waste from renewable energy technologies will not leave such a devastating footprint as nuclear energy, which remains hazardous for millennia.
Lastly, nuclear energy does not promote a just transition to a low carbon economy and will not lead us to greater climate resilience. Socially-owned renewable energy is a better alternative. The jobs that may come from nuclear are temporary construction work and then highly-technical like nuclear physicists, which we do not have much of in the country. Therefore, we as South Africans will not benefit in the long-run from these nuclear energy builds.”
Bongani Khoza (PE, Eastern Cape):
“We say no to S34 ministerial determination. How much is the community informed about the disadvantages of nuclear? Was there a survey conducted to engage the community to see their needs will be met? Why would we see nuclear as the only alternative when first world countries around the world – who are the pioneers of nuclear – are now decommissioning their nuclear power stations?
When we say no to nuclear power, we are not being backwards. Renewable sources are plenty in South Africa. Wind, hydro, geothermal, biogas, and ocean/marine energy are all things for us to explore and learn about. And, these are all renewable. Just look at former Pretoria student, Elon Musk who is making a global impact building electric cars. Why does South Africa not explore RE alternatives? Even though South Africa is currently dependent on coal for our electricity supply, to replace it with nuclear, is still not the solution.”
Melikaya Blani (PE, Eastern Cape):
“For me, one of the key issues, apart from all the problems with nuclear that are mentioned above, is the platform used for these proceedings. Most of us, as community-based organisations (CBOs), do not have the tools and/or cannot afford the data to participate online. This meant that there were some who could not be part of these discussions. This does not seem to be very democratic. Chapter Five (5) of the National Development Plan (NDP) speaks of environmental sustainability, but the people need to be involved for this to work. Furthermore, the people should have a say in whether or not we allow our country to become a dumping site for this failed, dirty technology – especially since most developed countries are moving away from this.
Why do we want to extend Koeberg’s life? It is old and we should rather be talking about decommissioning the plant.”