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Renewable energy ticks all the right boxes for SA’s energy needs

Recently, the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) has made serious statements in the media about its plans to build nuclear power stations cheaper than any other country in the world and to produce electricity far more inexpensively than renewable energy or coal.

These statements are not, however, backed by sound scientific evidence and once again the South African public is expected to take the pro-nuclear lobby’s promises at face value.

Citizens have a right to know exactly how the costs of new nuclear reactors are being calculated and Necsa needs to open their findings up to scrutiny and debate. To date, the entire nuclear procurement process has been shrouded in secrecy, which opens up many fresh avenues for corruption.

The two mega coal-fired power stations Medupi and Kusile are both hugely over budget and behind schedule. The country (and Eskom) has a terrible track record for delivering massive infrastructure projects on time and within budget.

The answer has not been to cancel sluggish and bloated infrastructure projects, but instead to push ahead with the proposed nuclear programme, which would be the biggest single investment in energy infrastructure this country has seen in recent history.

Necsa’s unscientific and biased attack on renewable energy shows that the nuclear industry is unable to compete with cutting-edge technology that delivers on time, within budget and more cheaply than new coal or nuclear, and is threatened by how quickly renewable energy is growing.

There is no doubt that job creation is a priority in South Africa. But the contribution that the proposed nuclear-build programme would make to job creation is limited and expectations of massive job creation around new nuclear power are unfounded.

There will be an increase in jobs in the nuclear sector during the construction phase but the numbers will drop sharply after that.

By contrast, renewable energies provide a sustainable increase in green jobs – up to a total of 148?000 jobs by 2030 if South Africa follows an aggressive renewable energy pathway.

The only correct statement from Necsa came from its newly elected chairperson, Kelvin Kemm, who said producing more electricity is the only way to improve the quality of life for South Africans. But what he should have said is “enough electricity” – we do not need to invest in electricity infrastructure for the sake of it but to deliver safe, affordable and reliable power to all South Africans.

The quality of new electricity sources is critical: they must be cost-competitive, not dirty and polluting, and they must be safe.

Renewable energy ticks all those boxes. Using energy access to argue in favour of nuclear is misleading and disingenuous as nuclear plants would deliver far too little, far too late and at far too high a price to make a meaningful difference to energy access.

If we care about energy access then the answer is to invest in renewable energy. It delivers within shorter timelines and far more cheaply than either coal or nuclear.

The future lies in new energy policies and systems that help put the power back into people’s hands. Nuclear power is failing to supply safe, affordable electricity for all South Africans and belongs in the past.

A safe and reliable way of providing electricity in South Africa would be to combine renewable energy technologies, such as solar photovoltaic cells, concentrated solar power and wind, with active demand- side management and energy-efficiency measures.

Penny-Jane Cooke is Greenpeace Africa’s climate and energy campaigner

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