Energy Watch

SA nuclear build programme a disaster in the making

After Chernobyl, should the Russian really supply us?

Plans by the South African Department of Energy to embark on an ambitious nuclear power building programme are flowing a similar path as the recent ill-fated change of visa regulations.

In this instance, proceeding with the plans to build as many as nine new nuclear power plants over the next 15 years has much more serious, vastly wider and immensely longer-lasting implications than the devastating effect of the visa regulations on the tourist industry.

In fact, there are warnings from experts that the nuclear programme is likely to turn out a disaster, impacting on generations of South Africans well into the future.

Much like the Department of Home Affairs with their visa regulations, Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson and her department seem determined to proceed – and in great secrecy – with their nuclear plans, despite warnings from experts that from a number perspectives it would be a huge mistake.

Secrecy concerns

To make things worse, plans are proceeding in great secrecy, to the extent that even the ruling African National Congress has now in a discussion document raised concerns, declaring that the government must commit to “a full, transparent and thorough cost-benefit analysis of nuclear power” as part of the procurement process to build new nuclear reactors.

Very few details, some of them critical to public interest, about the nuclear plans have yet been made public for informed responses, despite the fact that, according to the minister, construction of the first nuclear plant is already to start next year.

In an open letter to the minister, Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, executive director of Greenpeace Africa, called for the urgent release of information, declaring: “Greenpeace believes it is in the public interest that all studies and assessments about nuclear investments be made available to the public, particularly given the size of the proposed investments.”

Cost and bugging global trend

The department’s plans come despite clear evidence that, besides serious immediate and long-term safety concerns, nuclear power is not the most cost-effective option by a long shot.

In January of this year an independent study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), found that renewable energy from South Africa’s first wind and solar (photovoltaic) projects created R0.8 billion more financial benefits to the country than they cost during 2014.

It also found that electricity generation from coal and solar photovoltaic generation is 20% cheaper than nuclear and in the case of wind, it is a whopping 40% cheaper. Some of the long-term costs involved in nuclear electricity generation also often remain hidden or out of the public eye.

South African power utility Eskom, already involved in a titanic struggle to keep financially afloat, now has to spend an estimated R200 million on additional nuclear waste from its Koeberg power station, which has been in operation since 1985.

A global trend towards renewable energy generation – with 145 countries, including some in Africa, having introduced policies in support of renewable energy projects – is taking hold and the latest CSIR study found that South Africa’s wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) projects generated nearly R4 billion more in financial benefits during the first half of 2015 than they cost the country.

The ANC discussion paper, expressing concerns about the nuclear deal also states: “The government must commit to a full, transparent and thorough cost benefit analysis (our emphasis) of nuclear power as part of the procurement process,” it said. It warns that nuclear energy “can only be procured in line with the legal prescripts and after a thorough-going affordability assessment.”

On the other hand, as far as nuclear energy generation is concerned, Vladimir Slivyak, senior lecturer of environmental policy at Russia’s National Research University’s Higher School of Economics, writes: “Despite the nuclear industry’s enormous state funding and political support, the contribution of nuclear to the world’s primary energy production has dropped from 8% in 2000 to around 4.4% in 2014.

“The reason behind the decline in nuclear power across the world is simple. Most nuclear reactors currently operating were built back in the 1960s and 1970s. These old reactors were designed for a lifespan of 30 to 40 years. Although some have been granted renewed licenses to operate for another one or two decades, nuclear reactors are not eternal and most now require decommissioning.”

And a report by a Swiss-based banking firm claimed: “We believe solar will eventually replace nuclear and coal, and be established as the default technology of the future to generate and supply electricity.”

Megaprojects, like the one involving building of nine nuclear plants, also has proved throughout recent history, to encounter massive cost overruns, including the South African example of what happened with stadiums constructed for the 2010 Football World Cup.

Safety concerns

While all indications are that the Russians will be the South African government’s partner in rolling out its nuclear programme, it is crucial to take note of the warning by Russian expert Slivyak’s that nuclear accidents are a real threat.

He writes about a history of nuclear accidents in Russia and the Soviet Union stretching back to the late 1950s, saying that it is no surprise that when the agreement between Russia and South Africa was signed a clause was included that “in case of a nuclear accident, South Africa will accept all the liability”.

But is not only the Russians who have had safety problems with nuclear power. The Americans have had their Three Mile Island incident, and there were problems at Sellafield in Britain and then, most recently, in Japan at Fukushima when a natural disaster in the form of a tsunami struck.


Against the background of all this evidence it is difficult to comprehend why the Department of Energy seemingly stubbornly wants to proceed with such a massively dangerous megaproject.

In the case of the visa regulations, one economic sector, tourism, was damaged and that damage can probably be reversed.

In the case of a massive nuclear project, the future of generations to come is not only put at risk, but if things go wrong, some of the potential damage will be irreversible – for ever.

As the Russian Slivyak puts it: “The Nkandla scandal is a drop in the ocean compared with the pending Russian nuclear deal. South African civil society must take a stand now towards the future it wants before it is too late.”


by Piet Coetzer

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