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Apr 12, 2013

Nuclear power should be shunned on economic, enviro and ethical grounds

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By: Geoff Davies

Leaders from a wide cross section of the faith community are seeking an urgent meeting with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and have endorsed the call by Minister in the Presidency responsible for the National Planning Commission Trevor Manuel for a national Energy Indaba.

This follows a report in the Engineering News of February 22, which stated that Department of Energy director-general Nelisiwe Magubane had said South Africa was likely to reach a “point of no return” by June this year with regard to its proposed new nuclear energy build programme.

In his State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma endorsed the National Development Plan, which has questioned the advisability of nuclear power. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said in his Budget speech that South Africa must “adapt to a low-carbon economy, including the mobilisation of our renewable-energy potential”. It is unclear whether the Minister views nuclear energy as ‘low carbon’. Nevertheless, statements of commitment to nuclear energy have been made.

Faith leaders are extremely alarmed at such statements, given the rising evidence regarding the consequences for society, the economy, job creation and the environment.

The Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum, the KwaZulu-Natal Inter-Religious Council, the South African Catholic Bishops Conference’s Justice and Peace Commission and the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute all wrote to Zuma last year, but have received no response. A small group met with Energy Minister Dipuo Peters in July 2012 to express their concern. She confirmed that she believed in an “energy mix”, stating that she was “energy neutral”. The delegation stated that one cannot be neutral when it comes to nuclear energy.

It is well known among economists and energy research centres that nuclear energy:
• would provide the fewest jobs;
• is exposed to financial risks, such as exchange rate fluctuations;
• could end up costing several times more than renewable energy, which is declining in cost and can be financed by independent power producers;
• would cause fuel prices to continue escalating; and nuclear energy advocates do not ever state the massive costs of decommissioning nuclear plants and dis- posing of nuclear waste.

This is why private banks and the World Bank have always refused to fund nuclear power stations – this is left to governments and their taxpayers.

The Economist magazine published a special edition on nuclear energy (March 10 to 16, 2012), saying that it has priced itself out of serious consideration.

Scientific American published a special edition in November 2009 that stated: “Wind, water and solar power could supply the world’s energy needs by 2030.”

The Electricity Governance Initiative, a civil society forum of energy experts, showed in 2012 that, with energy efficiency and renewable energy, South Africa could meet all its energy needs at a lower cost and with far higher employment potential than it would with government’s current plans, which include nuclear and additional coal-fired plants.

Yet Eskom and government continue to perpetuate the myth that baseload electricity can only be generated by coal or nuclear. While this used to be true, new technology and information show that this is no longer the case. Such significant advances in renewable energy have been made, and continue to be made, that renewable energy can provide a reliable electricity supply at reduced cost. Already figures from the Department of Energy and Eskom are showing that the cost of electricity from the new Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations will be higher than renewable-energy costs for wind and photovoltaic (PV).

Nuclear energy, based on current estimates, costs at least twice the price of wind and PV, and it will take at least 12 years to generate electricity (according to information from the Department of Economic Devel- opment Western Cape, the German Green Party and the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US).

Natural gas off the coast of Mozambique (not shale gas!) could be brought to South Africa’s coastal cities within two or three years where, combined with renewables, it would provide a robust baseload capacity and save the 30% energy lost in bringing electricity from Mpumalanga.

Taxpaying South Africans have to pay the capital costs – either through taxes or increased tariffs – of R385-billion for the two new coal-fired power stations, while the proposed ‘six-pack’ of nuclear plants will set us back R940-billion (according to figures provided by Eskom).

It is also a myth that nuclear energy will assist in reducing South Africa’s carbon footprint. The costs of mining uranium ore are increasing with the diminishing availability of high-grade uranium, as are the costs of transport and construction. All these processes are highly carbon intensive. What is more, with the long build times, nuclear power will come on line too late to address the urgent need to reduce our carbon emissions.

The IRP2010 was due to be renewed in 2012, and already the predictions it made with regard to demand for electricity have been found to be significantly inflated, compared with the reality. It would be irresponsible for government to make a decision on nuclear power based on data that is known to be outdated.

We know that government is following the IRP2010, which includes nuclear energy. Zuma has stated government wants to root out corruption, but government must know the danger of corruption and fraud associa- ted with nuclear, which requires secrecy, as it is a security risk. There is great danger that those ‘in the know’ and in power might have vested interests in promoting nuclear energy, particularly given the scale of investments involved. The arms deal involved R70-billion. Imagine what could happen with R940-billion. We are talking about investments 14 times greater.

Centralised energy generation is not the direction in which the country should go. We need decentralised energy generation that puts power in the hands of the people. Centralised electricity is for the benefit of the extractive industries and smelters – not the two-million largely impoverished households dotted across our rural areas. The high energy paradigm benefits capital investors, who prefer to invest in machines rather than people, resulting in a decline in employment. They also invest for financial returns and not the development of people, communities or the protection of the environment.

We, in South Africa, face a particular dilemma. We must overcome poverty, unemployment and inequality. We must also reduce our carbon emissions because of climate change. But we, members of faith communities, believe that God has given us the answer: invest in, and develop, a low-carbon, labour-intensive economy. This will dramatically improve the health of the planet, create thousands of distributed jobs and, by putting energy in the hands of people instead of centralised national and multinational corporations, will help overcome our present gross inequality and so reduce poverty.

 

  • Bishop Davies is executive director of the Southern Africa Faith Communities' Environment Institute - geoff-davies@safcei.org.za
Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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