Sunday, September 9, 2007

Nuclear Blackout - South Africa

by Ingela Richardson

Unless the average South African reads Mining Weekly, Creamers Weekly, The Financial Mail or trade journals related to mining, energy supplies, stocks and shares, they will have missed out on the government's national plan to "roll-out" nuclear power by next year.

It seems that in general the Department of Minerals and Energy has attempted to forge ahead with deals with multinational companies that will affect all of South Africa, but without the element of public participation that is supposed to be entrenched in law. The government seems to be following a policy of stating their plan of action and then defending it at all costs, regardless of public protest. Participation by the public by registering as IAPs or attending meetings, or even the issue of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) seem to be given no importance at all and protesters to certain projects have even found themselves attacked and vilified through the press - as in the case of the Coega development outside Port Elizabeth.

In cases like these, industrial magnates not only have had financial backing to railroad communities into compliance, but have also used certain media groups as their own personal public relations organizations - advertising all their business and industrial developments with the highest praise. This kind of media bias then calls into question the media groups' owners allegiances - and in most cases the vested interests of media owners in mining and industry projects have caused their publications to become mere advertising pamphlets or mouthpieces for industrial developers.

In the case of South Africa's nuclear programme, the avoidance of general media to report comprehensively on issues that would affect the public and relegating nuclear to a few letters or comments, shows another bias that is of more concern. Concerned scientists in countries overseas who have seen the problems caused by nuclear programmes then refer to the "atomic mafia" as being those who have such a high financial stake in nuclear development that they will do anything to ensure the programme goes ahead. Even if it means sacrificing the rights of the people to participate in government and also moving as far from "transparent governance" as possible to the point of denying environmental groups the rights to documents affecting public health in court.

Eskom is of course notifying nuclear suppliers in advance - just not the South African people. In fact the Department of Minerals (DME) wants to push nuclear through legislation so that projects will move ahead quickly without any need for public participation. They want to be able to build nuclear reactors on sites they have chosen without public protest. How much will this cost? Only about R80 billion - but check again next month, because this figure keeps going up.

Eskom will go ahead and apply for licences and security approval - but who in the community will know that a section of land next door is earmarked for a nuclear reactor? Possibly not until it is built, and then it is too late. This is a hard lesson people around Coega have learned. They objected before the project went ahead and government departments ignored them. They objected during and after construction and were told "it’s too late now". And what role did the press play? Certain "technocrats" had a field day disguising themselves as modern day Robin Hoods who were going to "uplift the poor". But unfortunately not only did they "uplift the poor" but they uplifted themselves to the tune of a package - in the case of Coega CEO Pepi Silinga - that rivalled the president of the country. The media in this case became a mouthpiece for industrialists and turned any concerned protester (whether motivated by environment or pure survival concerns) into a whipping boy.

Now Eskom wants 20 000 MW of electricity to come from nuclear plants - 700-MW and 1 600-MW. Do you know how big this is? Have you seen pictures? Possibly because government does not want people to see what they are paying for.

Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin said nuclear energy should play a far greater role in South Africa. Why? Possibly because President Bush has a few million in this project on behalf of the American people who ironically are trying to move away from his global warming policies. The US and Australia were not party to the Kyoto Protocol that aimed to cut down on global warming industries. Erwin protests that nuclear addresses global climate change, but unfortunately when you include poisoning from uranium mining, processing, transport and waste storage, this just isn't true.

Unfortunately again, South Africa is a dry country - water is a precious resource. Yet nuclear reactors need water to cool spent fuel rods. Where does that water come from? Where does it go? Perhaps it is better for the community not to know that certain discharges from nuclear reactors are deemed fit to re-enter air and water sources. Better still not to know of examples such as the cancer cluster discovered by researchers in Wales affecting people who lived near a dam used by a nuclear reactor.

How many members are there in the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor company? The PBMR government company advertises itself as the answer to nuclear energy problems and how much has it cost? Necsa CEO Rob Adams will have us know that PhDs don't come cheap. So they have spent a few million. How cheap is nuclear power again?

Perhaps we need to try other questions like "Why not solar?" We live in a country with plentiful sunshine after all and have local developers. South African Rands would not have to go to Russia, Japan and whoever else advertises nuclear technology skills. The DME thinks it is fine to trade food from South Africa for Russian nuclear scientists. Let's think about that one. Does South Africa need food or nuclear science? Can anyone afford nuclear energy at these prices? Who knows. Someone is being selective with the truth.

Yours sincerely

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