SA’s fixation on nuclear energy based on ‘patronage’

In his State of the Nation address this year, President Jacob Zuma said the energy department had committed to building more nuclear power stations,  generating around 9 600 megawatts of nuclear energy a year. He also said a new coal power station would be built, in addition to the two mega-stations underway at Medupi and Kusile. Unfortunately, renewable technology only got a perfunctory nod.

This decision goes against South Africa’s international climate change commitments, its own energy plans and ignores the global shift towards renewable energy. Professor William Gumede, of Democracy Works, said the move was being pursued due to a political agenda. “Projects are being implemented, essentially from a purely patronage point of view,” he argued.

Focusing on nuclear energy also comes with the perceived bonus of tying South Africa closer to Brics nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – all of whom are nuclear-inclined states wanting to sell technology to the country, he said.

Gumede added that South Africa did not have the institutional capacity for a nuclear build and no clear national plan for energy. As a result, each level of government had begun “doing its own thing”. For the most part, this meant going with tried and tested technologies – mainly coal – due to the lack of support.

Professor Harald Winkler, director of the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, explained that since the 2009 national elections the energy sector had become heavily politicised. 

In his address, Zuma focused on big energy supply projects. Winkler explained, “It’s all about nuclear, hydro in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], shale gas and some renewables.” He said this was despite the political and environmental need for a major focus on renewable energy.

It therefore seemed as though the decision on a new nuclear build had already been made, he said. “Will it be based on the best available information or on the basis of geo-political relations with Russia, China and France?”

No future need for nuclear or coal
Last year, an update on what the country’s energy plan should be – the Integrated Resource Plan 2010 – was released. It scaled-down hugely on the country’s future energy needs based on sluggish economic growth. It said nuclear was not needed and a decision could be made in the future if the economy grew faster than expected. It suggested, instead, that there be a focus on hydo-electric power from neighbouring countries, gas and renewable technology. It made special reference to the need for an emphasis on concentrated solar power – the only renewable energy source that can store energy and create base load power.

Winkler said this had not been adopted by Cabinet and it was not clear whether it would be. Zuma’s commitment to build 9 600 megawatts of nuclear power was, therefore, based on old information and outdated energy plans.

David Hallowes of groundWork said the continued emphasis on coal and nuclear in the face of climate change was disastrous. In 2009, South Africa voluntarily pledged to lower its carbon emissions by 42% by 2025. This was part of global efforts to reduce emissions and  ensure that average temperatures did not increase by more than two degrees this century

Current plans, along with the construction of the Medupi and Kusile coal power stations, meant this target would be missed. “Two degree warming will be disastrous. The present national and international order will not survive it,” Hallowes warned.

Richard Worthington, of Project 90×2030, said it seemed government was never serious in its commitment, explaining that electricity had been so cheap in the past that the tendency was always to resort to coal as an energy solution. “Our resource endowments are so plentiful that we tended to be profligate in the past.”

Renewable energy was the perfect solution to current energy problems, he suggested. Projects signed off two years ago were already producing electricity while Medupi’s completed construction was three years overdue. It was being held back by the lack of real commitment from government. With an emphasis on renewables over expensive nuclear and polluting coal, a local industry could be built. South Africa would then have industrial growth as well as environmentally-friendly energy, he said.

In 2007, the department of environmental affairs published its Long Term Mitigation Scenario that sought to balance economic growth and the need to lower carbon emissions. It concluded that continuing to fully exploit the country’s coal reserves would “over the long-term lead to the failure of the South African economy”. The country would be shunned internationally and its exports would be banned because they were not climate-friendly, he warned.

This had vested power in two groups – Eskom and Sasol. “The South African context is one that is rich with potential but where much power remains vested in the mineral-industrial complex.” Coal and nuclear energy had a strong lobby that sidelined renewables. But renewable energy was advancing rapidly and was starting to be equal in price to conventional energy. “There is no reason that we can’t be working flat-out on renewables.”

A chance to change the country
Professor Barend Erasmus, head of the Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, said there needed to be a bold increase in the growth of renewable energy. At present, there has been a complacent acceptance of old technology but there were several moments in human history where technological developments – the steam engine, internet, combustion engine – had completely changed life. Renewable energy had the chance to radically alter society, by democratising energy, and provide ever-cheaper electricity, he said.

But it has to happen now. “By deferring [the move to renewables] you eventually have a bill you can’t settle.”

This was why Malango Mughogho, of the World Wide Fund for Nature, said people needed to take it upon themselves to be proactive.

“There is a sense of powerlessness because government has made whatever choices it wanted. But they have a say,” Mughogho said. Eskom is owned by the state and the government employee’s pension fund has a large shareholding in Sasol. People therefore owned them and could demand a change in their business models, she claimed.

The same went for the country’s energy future. “People needed to lobby and put pressure on the government to make sustainable choices,” she said. “We have the power to shift things, depending on the choices we make today.”

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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