Our country is not a dumping ground for unnecessary nuclear

Picture: Mary Jane Mphahlele

Trends are important. They may not give exact answers, but they can reveal what questions should be asked. Here are few trends related to South Africa and nuclear power, and some important questions regarding the future of our nation.

Anyone who has picked up more than one newspaper in the last year will be familiar with this concept. It is a form of systemic corruption where private interests significantly influence governmental decision-making and policies for their own gain. While it is difficult to quantify, it has certainly increased during the Zuma era to a point where it has infiltrated numerous sectors within government and the state owned entities. Corruption at the national power utility, Eskom, has been documented in the ‘State of Capture’ report, The Denton Report and the Betray of the Promise Report to name but the high profile ones.  

Developed countries have shown an average trend to move away from nuclear power. This is the firm conclusion of Vladimir Slivyak and Chris Williams, who are nuclear policy experts from Russia and the United States respectively. They have a combined experience of over 50 years in this field, and recently did a discussion tour through South Africa. Here are just a few observations under this trend:

Germany is planning a full phase out nuclear by 2022. France was once a champion of nuclear power, but is planning to close up to 17 nuclear reactors by 2025 backed by a policy to reduce dependence on nuclear power. Areva, the former French nuclear giant is under business rescue, (after accumulating $11 billion in debt over a 5 year period) and Westinghouse Electric Company from the United States has filed for bankruptcy this year. The number of units under construction worldwide is declining for the fourth year in a row, to 53 by July 2017. European nuclear utilities are being downgraded by credit rating agencies and share values are down 75 to 89% compared to peak values in the last decade. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2017, an independent study, puts it as bluntly as this: “Only where the government or the consumer takes the risks of cost overruns and delays is nuclear power even being consi­dered.”

The nuclear lobby is evidently well funded behind the scenes, and by carefully selecting facts, a view can be generated that still shows nuclear as being alive and well. However, this brings us to the next trend.

Energy Governance South Africa (EGSA) is a group of concerned individuals and organisations supporting good governance in the energy sector. Over the years, members have on a daily basis scanned articles in the mainstream media. A clear trend has emerged that views promoting further nuclear expansion in South Africa are often linked to parties that would stand to benefit directly therefrom. On the other hand, opinions in the media that caution against any more nuclear power stations generally come from civil society organisations, energy research institutions, political scientists and economists.   

So here is the local context pulling these trends together. Most developing countries are moving away from nuclear. There is ample evidence of high level corruption with decision makers in government and Eskom (who would be in charge of the proposed nuclear fleet). Those pushing nuclear often stand to profit financially. Added to this were two competent Finance Ministers, both of whom refused to sign off on a nuclear deal, and both of whom were removed from office under suspicious circumstances.  Undeterred by a court case that showed that the nuclear procurement process was “unlawful and unconstitutional”, the then Minister of Energy, Mmamoloko Kubayi, remained committed to nuclear energy because it is the “declared intention of government”. As if one should not interrogate this fait accompli?

So, there are two key questions: Why is our government still pushing for nuclear? and who really stands to benefit from any nuclear deal?

Given the enormous sums of money, these are critical questions. Nuclear power plants require massive capital investment and construction times are well over 10 years. Furthermore construction delays are essentially the norm, and this increases the costs further – three reactors currently under construction have been in this phase for over 30 years! How much more will this end up costing the respective tax payers? Decommissioning costs for nuclear facilities can be on par with the huge constructions costs, where will this money come from when it is needed? What will future generations think about having to pay for that and manage the radioactive waste?

Here is a theory. The international nuclear vendors who are still solvent have seen where these trends are heading. However, they would like to squeeze as much out while they still can.  The developed nations that have had nuclear for a long time are now familiar with the cost overruns and delays in nuclear plant construction, they are starting to deal with enormous decommissioning costs, they have seen how nuclear can increase electricity tariffs, they are battling with effective long term waste solutions and many now have policies to phase out nuclear power. So for nuclear vendors, the developed nations have ceased to be an attractive target market.

Enter the developing nations, particularly those where corruption can influence policy. Africa has plenty of countries that need more energy, and South Africa, as the only country on the continent with any nuclear experience, would be a convenient gateway to the last untapped market. Evidence would also suggest that some high ranking decision makers in South Africa would not be against making a deal that fills their pockets at the expense of the citizen.

Effectively this theory shows South Africa as a strategic location where nuclear vendors may be able to push an unnecessary technology that is losing favour in many of their other markets around the world. While nuclear does have lower operational emissions, giving it a potential justification on climate change grounds, there are far better options. Renewable energy is exploding around the world, with wind and solar prices continuing to drop. Storage options are solving the intermittency issues.

Let us fast forward to a hypothetical time 15 years down the track, when the first units of the proposed nuclear fleet in South Africa could potentially come online. Much like what we are already seeing with Hinkley Point (the troubled nuclear reactor in the United Kingdom), prices for this nuclear derived electricity is so much more than other low carbon options that the entire project becomes a stranded asset. Of course those that benefitted from making the South African deal happen would be long gone, having a good life, possibly in somewhere like Dubai. Conversely, the poor in our country will be hardest hit by the knock on economics of this white elephant.

So what can you do? Reading the first few summary pages of The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2017 is a good starting point to get idea of what shape the nuclear industry is in. Be critical of what you read in the media. 

As South Africans we have seen over and over again how elements within the current government push self-serving agendas, but the nuclear deal is the biggest of them all. We all stand to lose if it goes ahead, so we must all stand against it. 

Halsey is a member of the policy and research team at the Cape Town based environmental organization Project 90 by 2030.