Something dodgy about nuclear sites

HAVE you been to Thyspunt? I haven’t. I had never even heard of it until it was proposed that South Africa build a nuclear power station there, some 80km from PE. And now I’ve just had a communication from Outa, that prolific and valuable defender of the public’s rights, about this, gazetted on August 8 this year:

Notice is hereby given that Eskom (Pty) SOC has made an application to the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) for a Nuclear Installation Site Licence for the Thyspunt site.

The seriously irritating thing about this notice, which follows a similar notice for Duynefontein (part of Koeberg) gazetted on July 29, is that both have the same closing date for comments from the public: August 29. So for Thyspunt, the public has been given 21 days, not the required amount of time: the National Nuclear Regulator Act 47 of 1999 requires a minimum of 30 days for public comment. Plus the notices of the gazette must be published in a minimum of two local newspapers – I don’t know if that’s been done, haven’t seen anything myself.

Is this being sneaky, or is it being slack and slapdash? Frankly, I’m not sure which is worse – either you’re trying to slip something past us, or you’re just not that good at your job. (Which could be sort of worrying when you’re dealing with a project that involves technology that, if it does go wrong, could not go much wronger, right?)

I’m what you might call agnostic on nuclear (not convinced one way or the other), but that’s not the reason I’m upset about this. This sneaky little truncation of the comments period worries me. The whole process has been a little dodgy-looking so far, with the Russian contretemps and all that, hasn’t it? So we really don’t need you to even LOOK as though there's anything more dodge about the whole thing, really.

Whether you love or loathe nuclear, here’s the thing: the time horizon is so far ahead and the costs involved are so high (and if Medupi et al are anything to go by, likely to double on both scores as the build happens) that this thing warrants a lot more than three scant weeks for public comment.

Yes, it’s ‘only’ site approval, but once that’s in place, we’re beginning to look at a rather unstoppable juggernaut – and a very expensive, long-winded one, at that.  (And it’s me who’s going to be paying, along with you and you and every guy who pays fuel levies through using a taxi or VAT on purchases. Every South African, in fact. )

Here’s one of the points Outa raises: nuclear uses water, about 1 500 to 2 725 litres per megawatt hour according to some sources. We’re a water-scarce country – google ‘water restrictions’ and ‘Nelson Mandela Bay’ and you’ll see headlines about water restrictions coming and going in a prolonged dance down the years.

Where will the water come from?

So where is the water to service this station 80km from NMB going to come from? What are the contingency plans for drought – who gets priority when water is drying up, as it threatens to do quite a lot in the immediate future, let alone the long term?

What are your plans for the waste, please? (One of the documents I found on Eskom’s website included this statement: “It is further concluded that a shallow (5m deep) nearshore release point for cooling water is environmentally acceptable at Thyspunt, as it would not result in significant impacts on chokka squid.” Great. But what about the rest of the marine environment? Yes, this water is not, y’know, glow-in-the-dark, but what impact will a steady plume have on the non-commercial sea creatures?)

What are the conclusions of the Thyspunt Site Safety Report? The only one I could find was dated 2009, a big thick thing that deals extensively with wave height and tsunamis and such; I note that in this iteration, additional research was recommended.

It may have been satisfactorily done and be available, who knows? But I shouldn’t have to search for hours and make a half dozen phone calls to find it; it should be easily accessible to the public – put the links on your Facebook page, and Twitter and website, how about that? (The NNR is not on Facebook; Eskom is, a page full of lovely pics of CSR initiatives.) And the experts’ verbiage should be interpreted for the public.

What is the outcome of the endless to-and-froing about heritage impact? Dr Tim Hart originally said, in the HIA, “The archaeological and palaeontological heritage is diverse and prolific. […] The wilderness qualities of this portion of the coast in contiguity with the archaeological heritage are exceptional and make a substantial contribution to the character of the region. Given the mass and bulk of the proposed activity, un-mitigatable cultural landscape impacts are expected.”

So? Are the Gamtkwa Khoisan Council representatives of indigenous people happy now? And the archaeologists?

Basically, come clean. Make the information very accessible (go have a look at the websites of the NNR and Eskom – you have to laugh, honestly). Use graphs, guys. Try animation or vids. Give us public discussions about the implications (on radio and TV, not at ‘stakeholder meetings’).

Inform us. Let us make up our own minds, formulate our thoughts and then give us a decent period of time to submit them. Show a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

(Go to to comment.)

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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