We must seek alternatives

2014-10-29 00:00

I FIND it astounding that the government, without any consultation with the people and in breach of the people’s contract, has decided to commit South Africa to its most costly project of R1 trillion to establish seven nuclear power plants on our coastline.

We ask a simple question: who or what gave the government the right to make such an incredible decision? The government has very quietly placed this in the public domain as fait accompli. Why have the people been excluded from participating in such a critical matter? The government has displayed astounding arrogance in its attempt not to allow public participation. Suddenly we heard former finance minister Pravin Gordhan released R300 billion of our money in 2013 as the first phase of the funding.

South Africa is the 13th worst polluter in the world. The commissioning of the Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations (third- and fourth-largest in the world) will further sully its reputation as a dirty energy producer and place the country among the 10 worst polluters globally. Currently, South Africa relies on coal for almost 90% of its energy production. Factor in the cost of the health of the miners, the respiratory lung diseases of communities around the power stations, environmental destruction, the acid rain created from the emissions and, finally, global warming, and you have the true cost of our reliance on coal.

The new-found faith in going the nuclear route is a further indication of short-term thinking. Have we learnt nothing from the nuclear accidents of the U.S.’s Mile Island, the meltdown at Chernobyl in the Ukraine and the latest tsunami-ravaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan?

South Africa was hit by a series of earthquakes just months ago and is no longer as geologically stable as we believed. Are policy makers aware that South Africa is part of a tectonic plate that begins in the Red Sea, proceeds through the African Rift Valley and the Drakensberg range, just skirts Durban and exits at Port Shepstone? No nuclear facility, however strongly constructed, can withstand an earthquake.

Former energy minister Dipuo Peters made it clear that maintaining a long-term supply of enriched uranium for the proposed nuclear power plants was a major concern due to the rising Chinese purchase of African uranium. In a moment of honesty, she said: “By the time we build this nuclear power plant, we will not be able to afford enriched uranium.”

So please tell us why the government is investing more than R1 trillion in nuclear power? Add to the equation that the seven power plants will produce between only 14% and a possible high of just 21% of South Africa’s energy. Is this worth the massive investment, the terrible radioactive dangers and the storage of nuclear waste for thousands of years?

Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, is decommissioning its nuclear installations and going the route of clean, renewable energy. It already produces 30% of its energy needs from wind, solar and hydro sources. By 2050, it hopes to raise this to 80%.

South Africa has some of the most sun-drenched areas in the world, excellent wind fields along the coast, powerful ocean and wave currents, hydro generation potential and geothermal energy possibilities. The Clinton Foundation, a government adviser on solar power, believes South Africa has great potential for solar power. “The conditions in the Northern Cape are the best we found anywhere in the world.”

I get the sense there is little by the way of political will to develop a mix of mass renewable energy sources. Our mad pursuit of a coal and nuclear mix, at the cost of marginalising renewable energy, is not just ludicrous — it is dangerous for the economy.

The development of alternative and renewable energy sources has the added benefit of creating nearly one million jobs. South Africa should lead the world in the move to use sustainable, non-

polluting renewable energy. Perhaps the most critical reason we need to go alternative is to make that little commitment to reducing our carbon emissions to save the planet. R1 trillion invested in developing alternative sources of energy would make eminent good sense.

It is still not too late.

• Prithiraj Dullay is an academic and a human rights and environmental activist.

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