Nuclear power will worsen the wealth gap

Following the recent talks about nuclear security in South Korea, it is clear that on this small and fragile planet we need a world free of nuclear weapons. But what about our use of nuclear energy? As seen from Fukushima, its use can have such devastating consequences.

In the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, we believe we have to apply moral principles of justice and equity when making energy choices. We made this call at the COP17 climate talks in Durban in our Act Now for Climate Justice campaign—that is, justice for people and planet.

What is needed is a Copernican revolution. We used to think the sun went around the Earth and were proven wrong. Now we assume that life and the planet revolves around us humans—we are the centre of it all. The revolution needed is for us to recognise that the web of life and our wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of this planet. We humans are but part of the web, entirely dependent on a healthy planet. Our moral responsibilities must include those to the planet.

We threaten all life through our carbon-intensive way of life, our habitat destruction and pollution. Coal, we now realise, is not only costly but also highly damaging. Nuclear fission is a hugely powerful source of energy; its supporters claim it is the safest and most cost-effective answer for our energy needs. But we also know that when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong.

Eskom continues to propagate the myth that coal and nuclear power are the only sources of energy that can provide base-load electricity. This is no longer the case. With “smart grids”, thermal batteries and a mix of wind, sun and ocean currents, we can produce clean base-load electricity that is cheaper than nuclear power and new coal and has no fuel or decommissioning costs.

We are deeply concerned about the government’s nuclear plans because it is the wrong direction to take. Nuclear energy requires a centralised grid system and is extremely costly. Taking into account the mining of uranium, its transport and the construction of power plants, nuclear energy is certainly neither carbon-neutral nor “clean”.

Climate change is horribly real. We know we need low-carbon, labour-intensive industry and sustainable employment with decentralised, renewable energy that puts power into the hands of people in local communities. Let us enter the clean solar age and leave behind the dark ages of fossil fuel and nuclear.

Going the nuclear route will drive the final nail into the coffin of our democracy. It will further concentrate power in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. There has been no genuine consultation or engagement with civil society, no debate in Parliament. The government decided on nuclear energy and 20 months ago the director general of the department of energy was reported as saying: “If the government wants nuclear, I will make sure they get it.”

Why, when some of the most industrialised countries, such as Germany and Japan, are turning their backs on it? The only conclusion is that there is an immense amount of money in the nuclear industry for those involved and in power. They will reap the financial benefits, not the majority of South Africans. This will exacerbate the poverty-wealth gap.

We are now in the humiliating position of being the most unequal country in the world. Growing dependency on nuclear power will only make this worse. The corruption potential could make the arms deal look like a Sunday-school picnic. And, because it is dangerous and has to be secured from terrorists, it has to be secret, hence laws to muzzle the media.

Nowhere does private equity risk investing in nuclear energy. Only governments do this. But we, the taxpayers, have not been consulted. Private investors are rolling out renewable energy as fast as the department of energy will permit them. We need to be like Germany and Italy, where roofs can be covered in photovoltaic (solar) panels and income gained from feeding electricity into the grid. Will we always have to rely on the whims of Eskom?

The government wants to generate 9.6GW from nuclear energy. This will take at least 10 to 12 years to come on stream. Last year, Italy installed 9GW of photovoltaics, all paid for by private investors. In one year we could overcome our electricty crisis with renewable energy. Why do we not do it? If we spend R1-trillion on new nuclear plants, there will be little left for the top priority—the training and capacity-building of our people, the equipping of the rural poor with decentralised renewable energy.

We should be doing all we can to combat climate change. Renewable energy and energy efficiency will do this. Coal and nuclear power may increase our energy supply, but they concentrate wealth and destroy our planetary life-support systems.

A poster at COP17 asked: “Will the last person on Earth please turn out the lights?” It was a stark reminder that we might generate all the energy we need but could find ourselves on a lifeless planet. It is immoral and irresponsible to pursue an energy path that destroys life and impoverishes people. Consider the future of our children, not our vested financial interests.

Bishop Geoff Davies is the executive director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute



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