The need to explore alternative ways of enhancing public participation around nuclear power

2017-04-07 11:38

The Department of Energy’s extended public consultation process around the (draft) updated Integrated Energy and Integrated Resource Plans closed at the end of last month (March 2017). For a number of reasons, one is sceptical of the outcomes of this participatory process, particularly when it comes to feedback regarding the place of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix.

One’s scepticism in this regard is mainly driven by the fact that, given the extremely low levels of public knowledge about nuclear power, it is unclear if participants who attended these sessions would have been equipped with the knowledge that would have enabled them to have meaningfully contributed to debate and discussion at these sessions. In addition, even if participants were knowledgeable enough to follow the discussions and to contribute thereto, it is uncertain if participants would have been able to get the full picture of the nature of the choice facing South Africa. This is because of the narrow terms of reference which have been established by the gatekeepers in the nuclear debate, both pro and anti-nuclear camps. By and large, these stakeholders seem to have reduced the question of nuclear power to a technical decision, one that can be decided by merely tallying up and comparing the costs and performance of various electricity generation options. In such a scenario, where nuclear power is treated as merely one option among many, the broader societal concerns raised by a nuclear programme can easily be overlooked or ignored. These include, inter alia, the possible effects which a nuclear programme would have on our political and legal processes and, by extension, the character of our society. Presumably, any participatory processes conducted under these circumstances would more likely constitute information sessions at best or the fulfilment of perfunctory administrative tasks by government officials who feel forced to comply with procedural stipulations at worst. For these reasons, one does not believe that the public participation process carried out would be effective in obtaining public feedback and comments that could be used to reliably inform policymaking and leaders’ decisions in this regard. More cynically perhaps, a clarification on their effectiveness might be in order: Such a process was ineffective unless its purpose was never to inform policymaking in the first place. Based on this assessment, one argues that this process does not constitute meaningful public participation and that alternate means of obtaining public input ought to be explored.

Specifically, it is contended that the likely ineffectiveness of the public participation process just facilitated by the Department of Energy strengthens the case for putting the government’s nuclear plans to a popular referendum. Granted, at this point, given the arguments set out earlier, many readers will no doubt question how policymakers could leverage public input, whether obtained via means of a referendum or any other process, to make socially optimal decisions under these conditions. Since any referendum can only be held after ample time has been afforded for both pro and anti-nuclear supporters to run extensive awareness and information campaigns, citizens are able to able to reflect and make their decision after gaining an appreciation of the multifaceted nature of the decision facing South Africa which, by then, would have been clearly and comprehensively set out. This ensures that a referendum would yield results that are qualitatively superior to those that flow from the public participation sessions that have just been held. Given the enormous financial stakes involved, the unimaginably long timelines associated with any nuclear programme, the insidious effect which implementing a nuclear programme has on democratic political processes and the effect it has on the nature of social relations, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations of South Africans to pursue that course of action which strengthens policymakers’ ability to make decisions that are in our and their (future generations’) best possible interest. Anything less is an abrogation of the duty we have towards them and each other.

If you agree with this sentiment, we invite you to support our call for a popular referendum on nuclear power by going to our Facebook page ( and signing the petitions we have posted there.

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