Andreas Späth

No nukes in our back yard

2011-01-19 07:24

The sleepy Eastern Cape coastal village of St Francis Bay is an unlikely location for organised environmental activism and public protest.

You can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to come across just that during a recent visit: surfers, golf-obsessed retirees, professional fishermen and even some of the migratory holidaymakers getting involved in activities ranging from pamphleteering to marches.

They may not have much else in common, but they’re all very upset about Eskom’s decision to select Thyspunt, a rocky promontory just around the corner, as the “preferred site” for “Nuclear 1”, South Africa’s next nuclear power plant.

The Thyspunt Alliance points out the many flaws in Eskom’s plan:

• the threat to tourism, to an unspoilt coastline and to fragile, unique dune and wetland systems;

• the lack of infrastructure, including roads and power transmission lines;

• the location of several communities downwind of Thyspunt and the absence of sufficient evacuation routes in case of disaster;

• the historic and cultural importance of the site to the original Khoi-San inhabitants; and

• the risk of damage to near-shore chokka (squid) spawning grounds and the R500m-R700m chokka industry along with the livelihood of its 4 000-odd employees.

Disappointing

The Alliance argues that the regulatory and environmental impact assessment processes involved in selecting the Thyspunt site were limited, incomplete, “riddled with superficialities, errors, omissions” and altogether severely flawed. In addition, nuclear power plants are extremely expensive and slow to build, and are neither clean and free of carbon emissions nor a solution to climate change.

I agree with all of that. What nearly made me choke on my forkful of calamari and chips was reading that the Thyspunt Alliance, far from being anti-nuke per se, “fully understand[s] that it may be necessary to develop [South Africa’s] nuclear generation capacity”. It would seem that as long as the good folks of St Francis Bay aren’t burdened with this nasty piece of technology, they don’t care if their neighbours have to content with it.

A classic case of NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard. How disappointing!

Not only that. In the civic equivalent of a stab in the back, they even suggest a suitable alternative site in the Eastern Cape: the controversial Coega industrial development zone just outside of Port Elizabeth, citing the area’s existing state of “environmental degradation” and “excellent road system, both for delivery & evacuation purposes” as among the attributes making it the perfect place for a nuclear power plant.

“That’s right, dear fellow citizens living and working in and around Coega. Since your neck of the woods is already such a dump, we think you should be the proud hosts of Nuclear 1. If anything goes wrong, nobody will notice the additional damage to the environment and as an added bonus you all stand a pretty good chance of getting out of there without too much harm. Kind regards, your neighbours in St Francis Bay.”

Two guesses as to how Coegans will feel about this considerate gesture!

What Nimbies like the people of the Thyspunt Alliance seem forget is that nuclear energy doesn’t simply involve accommodating the odd power plant here and there. The industry comes with a massive infrastructure that spreads its associated risks far and wide, encroaching on many a local back yard. And few people want any of it in theirs.

Time to move along

Not those who are already stuck with SA’s only disposal site for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste at Vaalputs in the Northern Cape or those settled with the legacy of uranium mining on the West Rand, not to mention those living alongside the transport routes for nuclear fuel and waste, possible future sites of nuclear fuel production and re-processing, or long-term storage facilities for high-level radioactive waste.

Only people on the nutty fringe claim that nuclear power plants are risk free. They wouldn’t come with military-grade security or be entombed in bunkers supposedly able to withstand aeroplane impacts if they were. No matter exactly how dangerous you happen to think it is, the fact remains that in South Africa, blessed as we are with truly safe and clean world-class renewable wind and solar energy resources, we don’t need nuclear energy at all. Not at Thyspunt or Coega or anywhere else.

As far as nuclear power is concerned it’s high time we all moved along from NIMBY to NIABY – Not In Anyone’s Back Yard.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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