Nukes will dwarf the arms deal

If government gets its way and goes ahead with building six new nuclear power plants (NPPs), the potential for graft and corruption will make the arms deal fiasco look like a silly squabble over small change. Tenderpreneurs and kleptocrats throughout the land must be licking their lips at the prospect of having their palms, wallets and bank accounts royally greased.

There are many good reasons why nuclear energy is not a good option for South Africa or anywhere else: the health risk associated with NPPs, the waste which remains lethally radioactive for thousands of years and for which nobody has found an acceptable storage solution, the threat of terrorist attack and nuclear weapons proliferation, the fact that uranium fuel is neither inexhaustible nor carbon-neutral, and more. But for those of you who aren’t convinced by these bunny-hugging and touchy-feely sentiments, the clincher should be the fact that nuclear power simply makes no economic sense.

Independent studies show that nuclear energy has never been able to compete with fossil fuels and increasingly can’t compete with renewable energy technologies on a purely financial basis. Not in the First World and certainly not in a developing country like ours where elite powerbrokers have consistently found it impossible to keep their greedy hands out of the coffers of mega-budget projects

The nuclear industry cannot survive without the financial support of the state anywhere in the world. Of the $151bn in government subsidies for the US electricity industry between 1943 and 1999, more than 96% went towards nuclear power. Since the early 1980s the US government has sunk over $90bn into developing a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada without success. In the UK it is estimated that decommissioning of the previous generation of British nuclear plants and their accumulated waste will cost £72bn or more in taxpayers' money. In February, having spent more than R8bn with absolutely nothing to show for it, our own government finally decided to cut financial support for the ill-fated Pebble Bed Modular Reactor project.

Since the start of the so-called nuclear renaissance in the early 2000s, projected costs for new NPPs have increased two- to four-fold. Their construction is notorious for being over budget and delayed. By the end of last year, the Finish NPP being built on Olkiluoto Island by French state-owned multinational AREVA – a main contender for the South African nuclear bid – was more than three years behind schedule and at least 75% over budget. The only other NPP under construction in Western Europe at Flamanville in France is at least 20% over budget and two years behind schedule.

In an independent analysis of the South African situation, Rod Gurzynski has recently estimated that the total cost of a 1600MW NPP would come to around R100bn “all-in”. Among a number of criticisms, he points out that the consultants’ report on the cost of nuclear energy which was commissioned by the Department of Energy for the government’s 20-year Integrated Resource Plan does not seem to consider decommissioning costs or long-term high-level waste management and storage costs and therefore paints an entirely unrealistic economic picture.

Last month, researchers from Duke University in the USA showed that in North Carolina, which is nowhere near as sunny as South Africa, it is now cheaper to generate electricity using photovoltaic solar panels – possibly the most expensive of all renewable energy options – than by building new NPPs. So why are we still wasting time and money on even considering nuclear power as an option for South Africa?

In 1994, Trevor Manuel, then heading the ANC’s economic desk, said: “we shall not tolerate circumstances in which policy on issues as critical as a nuclear programme be confined to experts in dark, smoke-filled rooms.” In reality, however, that’s exactly how decisions are being made. A small but powerful lobby of special interest groups, including the nuclear industry itself, has the ear of the powers that be and we’ll have to shout a lot louder or we’ll all be burdened with an entire herd of radioactive white elephants soon.

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

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