Nuclear Energy: SA Government Sticks its Head in the Sand

On the 18th of May 2011, South Africans will head to the polls to vote in the local government elections. Free and fair elections have become an indication of a ‘democratic’ state that allows its citizens to have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Since 1994, South Africa’s elections - both at a national and local level - have been declared as ‘free and fair’. But do citizens really have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives? In terms of nuclear energy, the answer is quite simply: NO!

This was evidenced in the recently approved Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2010). The IRP 2010 provides for 9600MW of nuclear energy in the energy mix from 2023. The approval of the IRP2010 was a clear indication that government has shown little or no regard for the many civil society objections and submissions to the Department of Energy and the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee. The announcement of cabinet’s approval of South Africa’s nuclear plan was also made less than one week after the world was reeling from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant. It is hard to believe that government is oblivious to the impacts of nuclear energy.

So is this a case of a government being obstinate or has the government already signed agreements with France to build nuclear power stations?

While the Fukushima Daiichi plant disaster has been attributed to a natural disaster, its impacts are incredibly widespread. As of 12 April 2011, the nuclear accident at Fukushima was rated as a Level 7 ‘major accident’ - the highest level on the international nuclear accident scale, and equivalent to that of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Level 7 is used to describe an event consisting of “a major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures.” The Japanese government is now expected to extend the evacuation zone around the plant and declare the immediate area a no-go zone. About 22 000 residents have fled the area.

Ironically, this year is the 25th “anniversary” of the Chernobyl nuclear accident – the only other Level 7 accident in history. After 25 years, the area around Chernobyl remains uninhabitable with an exclusion zone of 30km still in place. Almost 200 000 people lived in the zone – which is now desolate. Radiation levels around the plant remain so high that authorities do not expect the area to be inhabitable for between 180 and 320 years. The Ukrainian government is still heavily burdened by the costs of this disaster, a quarter of a century later.

Given these impacts, one would have expected a responsible government to exercise some caution with nuclear energy plans. In many countries the nuclear debate has been re-opened as a result of Japan's nuclear troubles and Austria, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Germany called for a review of the safety of their nuclear reactors. Germany has since shut down seven of its old reactors.

Governments will continue to ignore their citizens until they remember that it is these same citizens who put them into power. The South African government may be confident of its support but this will not go on for as long as people are ignored. In Germany, the power of the voters has demonstrated that no government will be safe in power if they continue to endorse nuclear power. On the 28th of March 2011, Germany’s anti-nuclear Green Party won the Baden-Wuerttemberg state election and managed to beat Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which had been in power for almost 60 years.

Merkel’s duplicitous position on nuclear power was one of the main reasons for the defeat of the CDU. In 2010, Merkel’s government passed a law extending the life-span of nuclear plants by an average 12 years – a decision that toppled the previous German administration’s pledge of a gradual phase-out of nuclear energy. Then in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Chancellor made an abrupt turnaround and ordered a temporary shutdown of seven of the country's older reactors. This quick change raised doubts about her credibility and was viewed as a mere election ploy.

The nuclear energy debate may not have grown enough yet to sway voters in South Africa’s upcoming local government elections. Government has not listened to its citizens’ objections to nuclear power and may well get away with it for now. However, the tide is turning and government will have to listen to the needs of the South African people. The objections to nuclear energy are growing, with not only environmental organisations raising their voices, but also the labour movement with both the National Union of Mineworkers and Congress of South African Trade Unions raising concerns about nuclear energy in South Africa. However, the big challenge for civil society is the cloud of secrecy surrounding nuclear energy. There are numerous and complex problems of nuclear energy that are often hidden, including radioactive waste, untested new designs [PBMR comes to mind], phenomenal cost overruns, government loan guarantees, possible tax subsidies for the industry, and the general downplaying of potential hazards.

For decades South Africa has developed its nuclear industry, but what do we really know about it? It is time to ask the questions of the people we have put into power and demand honest answers. How is radioactive waste being dealt with in uranium mine dumps - Pelindaba and Koeberg? Where would South Africa source the fuel for its six new nuclear stations? Government‘s commitment to the future of nuclear energy is very strong, but where would it obtain funds for six nuclear stations?

Since the South African government is going to take decisions with pseudo-consultative processes, it is up to civil society to start asking the right questions. And if we don’t get answers to our questions, these decisions must be challenged to the full extent of the law so as to put a stop to nuclear energy in South Africa.

Our future is in our hands, and it is up to us to hold the government accountable.

- Makoma Lekalakala is a programme officer at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg.

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