by Ronald Eglin

“The nuclear energy debate is hotting up in South Africa” participants were told at a nuclear energy conference in East London on 13 September 2017. The conference was co-organised by Afesis-corplan and Earthlife Africa (Johannesburg).

In April 2017 Earthlife Africa (Johannesburg) and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute won a court case cancelling the nuclear energy agreement between South Africa and Russia. Government now has to restart the whole public participation process to determine if we need a nuclear energy programme in the country and if ‘yes’ restart the procurement process to identify who should build any new nuclear reactors. For more on this see this video on nuclear energy.

The debate around nuclear energy is an important one, even though on the surface, the public might feel that nuclear reactors in far off places of the country (like Thyspunt  just 70km south west of Port Elizabeth) do not affect them. Vladimir Slivyak and Chris Williams, anti-nuclear activists from Russia and the United States respectively, shared their experiences of dealing with nuclear energy in their countries.

Vladimir and Chris drew attention to the serious health and safety risks associated with operating and decommissioning nuclear reactors in their countries. See copy of Vladimir’s presentation here. They highlighted the unsolved problem of what to do with nuclear waste, some of which remains radioactive and a cancer health risk for hundreds of thousands of years. They cautioned South Africa to be sceptical of the job creation potential of nuclear energy, especially as it compares to alternative approaches like renewable energy, as many of the jobs in nuclear energy will be for higher skilled people and not those who need employment. Alternatively, more locals can be skilled up for jobs in the renewable energy sector.

It was highlighted that South Africa needs to decide if it can afford the high costs associated with building new nuclear reactors. There was even some speculation in the discussions that some countries that could be involved in building nuclear reactors in South Africa, like the Russians, did not envisage that South Africa would even be able to pay back any loans that they took out to build the nuclear power stations. If this is the case, what would these foreign countries gain by providing the South African government with loans they know will never be repaid? Will South Africa have to store these foreign countries’ radioactive waste for centuries to come?

The international guest speakers were not surprised at allegations of a link between nuclear energy and state capture in South Africa as the secrecy and large scale of nuclear build programmes makes nuclear energy an arena open for huge corruption all around the world.

Civil society needs to expose the truth when it comes to nuclear energy and let the public decide if they want to pursue a nuclear future (with its associated advantages and disadvantages) or pursue an energy conservation and renewable energy future. Our generation has to step up and decide the fate for generations to come. For more on nuclear energy see the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation and the Myths of Nuclear Power . To get involved and be kept up to date on what is happening around nuclear energy in South Africa see the Nuclear Costs SA campaign