Climate change is a reality and nuclear energy is not solving the problem. It is an expensive exercise which is actually being implemented too late, and it is still not carbon-free.
In addition, nuclear power needs uranium as fuel, which comes from uranium mining. There are advanced plans to surface-mine for uranium across hundreds of thousands of hectares of the Karoo, which would result in degraded land, polluted water, and serious long-term health impacts on communities across the region. The wind would blow radioactive uranium dust for many hundreds of kilometres across the Karoo, tainting everything with uranium dust, affecting animals, insects, plants, and people. Is this a fair or reasonable burden to place on land and people that are already experiencing the harsh realities of climate change?
Adapting to climate change will need resources. Government resources are limited, and every rand that goes into the coffers of the nuclear industry is one less rand for other national priorities, such as responding to climatic changes that have already happened. We need food and water security, and infrastructure investment that responds and adapts to a hotter, drier, harsher climate, with more frequent extreme weather events. Building resilience to climate change requires resources, both human capacity and financial.
A suite of decentralised renewable energy options is the solution to mitigating climate change. It is much less costly than nuclear energy and if delivered correctly, can provide sustainable energy to many marginalised communities who currently are forced to use firewood or paraffin and endure the accompanying ill health. Renewable energy achieves both mitigation and adaptation in one step. But such solutions also need government intervention, and any government programme needs a system of good governance to ensure that the benefits reach their intended recipients.
The manner in which the nuclear deal is unfolding shows clearly that democratic institutions and due process and procedures are being undermined. SAFCEI together with Earthlife Africa Johannesburg (ELA Jhb) have taken the South African government to task, challenging in the courts the Russian nuclear deal that South Africa signed in 2014. “This is an issue of ethical governance, we need to make a stand against abuse of state institutions and procedures to enrich the few,” says Liziwe McDaid, SAFCEI spokesperson. The court challenge was launched in October 2015, and the case will be heard in the Cape High Court on 13 and 14 December.
In recent weeks, a number of additional issues concerned with the nuclear procurement have emerged, including the idea that Eskom will now take over the nuclear build.
Firstly, this would remove the nuclear deal from the oversight of Parliament, shielding it from public scrutiny.
Secondly, the current electricity plan, IRP 2010, includes nuclear energy in the proposed mix, and is based on now outdated energy use and economic growth predictions. Added to these changes are the ever-falling costs of solar and wind installation since 2010. The most current cost comparisons show that nuclear (estimated R1.65kWh) is more expensive than both wind (R0.69c/kwh) and solar PV (R0.87c/kWh). Electricity prices would have to be raised significantly in order to pay for new nuclear energy.
Thirdly, committing the country to one single highly complex large-scale centralised energy technology, based on outdated planning scenarios, could mean that there will not be the anticipated numbers of customers for the electricity when it finally comes online ten or more years in the future, bearing in mind that nuclear power station construction usually takes far longer than budgeted and planned for. By then Eskom will have spent enormous amounts of money on the nuclear build, and if it is unable to recover the costs via tariffs, the State, effectively the tax-payers, will have to bail it out.
Fourthly, Eskom seems to have usurped the policy-making role of Government, adjusting energy policy itself by announcing that it will not, though required to do so, be signing new power purchase agreements with Independent Power Producers. If Eskom believes it is not accountable to government, this is very worrying given the proposed future role of Eskom as the procurer of nuclear technology, away from the public gaze.
At this stage, our government priorities appear to be focused on nuclear, which will be to the detriment of other inexpensive, sustainable and safe solutions that will enable vulnerable communities to respond and adapt to climate change. “We should not be wasting time and a lot of money even debating the need for nuclear power in South Africa,” says SAFCEI Executive Director, Venerable Ani Tsondru: “Decisions have been kept from the public, decisions that involve spending a trillion rand or more of our money – money we need for health and education and housing – all without following the due process required by our constitution and laws. This is immoral and unconstitutional”.