/ 2 June 2016

Editorial: The poisoned nuclear debate

Caution over the prohibitively expensive nuclear project cost two finance ministers their jobs.
Caution over the prohibitively expensive nuclear project cost two finance ministers their jobs.

Correction: Nuke body did not advise clean-up
The Mail & Guardian reported (June 3) that the National Nuclear Regulator had “advised an emergency evacuation” of radioactive material from a site managed by Tasman RSA Holdings. The article – “Partial nuke waste clean-up advised” and references to this statement in the editorial were incorrect. This was based on an incorrect reading of the regulator’s report. It did not advise a clean up and the regulator has subsequently said: “Based on the outcomes of the regulatory investigation, the NNR can confirm that there is no transgression of the regulatory requirements by the authorisation holder.” This investigation had found none of the breaches of law which the M&G had mentioned in its reporting. The M&G apologises for this error and any damage that might have been done to either the National Nuclear Regulator, or Tasman RSA Holdings.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the nuclear debate. South Africa is considering – some say we have already decided to make – the biggest investment we have ever made as a country. Yet we do not know how to have a calm and courteous conversation about nuclear energy. Some of the blame for that must be laid at the door of the government. President Jacob Zuma’s administration continues to present a massive investment in nuclear energy as a fait accompli – which rightly drives critics both economic and environmental into a frothing rage. A small part of the blame is for the account of those environmentalists who consider their ideology sacred and who think any tactic, including scaremongering and misinformation, is justified in their crusade.

But, as always, it is the big-money industry lobbyists who worry us most. The Mail & Guardian reports this week that the National Nuclear Regulator has advised the “emergency evacuation” of hazardous uranium material in the Beaufort West area, following an M&G report on it. This should be a sign of a system that works. Civil society, by way of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environmental Initiative, detected the problem. The fourth estate, in the form of the M&G, brought it to national attention. The regulatory authority took appropriate action. The affected community will have a source of potential harm removed and the nuclear industry can say uranium mining offers those in the vicinity of mines greater protection than, say, a community sitting atop a coal mine.

Instead of a basis for discussion, however, this has served as a reason for the chair of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa to launch a blistering attack on the M&G. In a column in Engineering News, this country’s pro-nuclear lobbyist-in-chief, Kelvin Kemm, coyly left the M&G unnamed, but accused us of inaccuracy, “extreme bias”, unprofessionalism and a host of other sins.

The rug has been yanked out from under his argument, which relied on the fact that an absence of action by the nuclear regulator meant we had exaggerated the danger in Beaufort West. The regulator’s subsequent action settles that argument. His overall point, however, stands. Kemm used our Beaufort West report to argue that the nuclear debate was being poisoned. We agree wholeheartedly. We just think he has the source of the poison entirely wrong. Kemm epitomises one way to wage the propaganda war the nuclear industry has openly declared: a sneering dismissal of the fears of ordinary people about radiation risks because they are ignorant. This, of course, does nothing to assuage those fears; we can only assume that it seeks to coerce people into silence through sheer disdain.

Russian state-owned nuclear provider Rosatom has in recent years adopted, as we have previously reported, a soft-power approach – one of outreach and education and charm that seeks to cajole rather than bludgeon. Between Kemm and Rosatom is a host of players engaged in less public attempts to influence officials and steer public discussion, sometimes insidiously, sometimes with the best of intentions.

The anti-nuclear camp has valid concerns about the cost of such power stations and their long-term effects. At the same time, the nuclear industry has a valid point about the overblown fears of nuclear technology, which has advantages we need the industry to present and defend. But it must do so in a fashion that contributes to the discussion, not by seeking to stamp out all opposing views.