HBS: While many countries worldwide have started reviewing their existing and planned nuclear power capacities, the South African government appears to be unmoved by the events in Japan and intends to stick to its plans to build up to six new nuclear power stations. What do you think are the reasons for that?
In the week after the Fukushima accident started, the South African government stated its intention to build 9600MW of nuclear power no later than 2030. This works out to six European Pressurised Reactors (EPR). One of the main reasons is likely due to the strong lobbying from the French (Areva wishes to sell these reactors to South Africa) and a small but influential lobby of nuclear scientists within South Africa.
While arguments have been put forth about nuclear power's low-carbon emissions, as seen in the government's Integrated Resource Plan 2010 (IRP2010), these arguments assume zero emissions, rather than emissions associated with Life Cycle Analysis. A nuclear build in South Africa is not stopping the development on new coal-fired power stations under the IRP2010, which calls for 16383MW of coal between now and 2030. Oddly enough, the government sees nuclear costs as less risky than renewable and fossil fuel costs.
HBS: What is the institutional and policy framework governing the nuclear energy sector in the country? Does it allow transparency and participation?
The framework is opaque at best, and the attitudes of the state-owned utility Eskom, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) and the National Atomic Energy Corporation of South Africa remain very much in the old Apartheid nuclear mentality of secrecy and paternalism; i.e. "We know what we are talking about, trust us”. The civil society representative on the NNR faces a constant uphill battle and has had to threaten to resign in order to be able to speak her mind.
Access to the decommissioning plan for Koeberg Nuclear Power Station by Earthlife Africa has proved to be difficult, almost impossible. In all likelihood, a court action will be required for even this most basic of data, as Earthlife Africa had to undertake regarding the information about the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) in 2005. The PBMR was supposed to be a small (165MW) reactor that could be installed next to factories.
For an overview of the South African nuclear industry, please see Institute for Security Studies’ briefing paper on the industry and transparency.
HBS: What is South Africa’s track record in nuclear safety? How well is the country managing the disposal of nuclear waste?
Like all countries, South Africa has no plan to deal with its high-level nuclear waste. This remains at the Koeberg power station in cooling ponds. We have a tremendous amount of nuclear waste in the form of uranium in the tailings of gold mines. Uranium is a by-product of goldmining in the Witwatersrand complex. This uranium pollutes streams, lakes, and people's homes all around Johannesburg; it is estimated that there are 100,000 tons of uranium in slime dams in the West of the Witwatersrand complex. Recently as last year, the NNR said the levels of radiation were safe, but had to revise this and move people from their homes after its calculations were shown to be false by an international expert. In effect, South Africa has a large uranium waste problem from gold mining and which is not being adequately addressed, despite a lot of people (mostly black and poor) being at risk of exposure.
HBS: The accident at Fukushima power plant was caused by a tsunami that followed a 8.9 magnitude strong earthquake. Is such natural disaster conceivable in South Africa? Is the Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town built to withstand such events?
The Koeberg nuclear power station sits 8km from the offshore Milnerton Fault, and was built to withstand an earthquake rated at 7 on the Richter scale. The last big earthquake at this fault was in 1809 and was estimated at 6.5. It is possible that earthquakes at 8 on the Richter scale could occur.
HBS: At the moment South Africa relies heavily on coal to produce its energy. In the country’s Long Term Mitigation Scenario (LTMS) nuclear power plays a significant role to cut carbon emissions. Could South Africa transform into a low carbon economy without nuclear energy?
A nuclear-free low-carbon economy is not only possible, but would, more than likely, be cheaper than a nuclear future. Several organisations in South Africa, from Earthlife to WWF-SA to Greenpeace have all published strong studies suggesting this. The Department of Energy has stated that they have done an energy scenario without nuclear power, but they have refused to release this scenario.
HBS: What is the popular opinion in South Africa on nuclear power? How influential has South African civil society been in the past in nuclear policy issues and what can it do at the moment?
Organised labour, faith communities, and civil society have consistently voiced their opposition to nuclear power. Last week, I was on a local radio station's business programme and the agreement between myself, Tony Twine, a leading economist, and an ex-Eskom board member, Richard Linell, was that Eskom could not afford nuclear power.
We have had some success, in particular in getting the PBMR programme shutdown. This finally happened in 2010, after more than R9bn had been spent. The irony is, less than a year after this and only a couple of days after Fukushima went into (at least) partial meltdown, a new nuclear programme was launched. Not only is the South African government unwilling to learn from its own mistakes, it is refusing to learn from Fukushima.