‘The nuclear path will compound centralisation and elitism, and necessitate importing skilled foreign labour’
IS SA about to multiply and repeat the R40bn arms-deal debacle that has haunted our politics for more than a decade? The government’s decision to invest more than R1-trillion in six nuclear reactors — the equivalent of 30 arms deals — risks being a disaster for our fraying governance as well as for the economy. The amounts of money involved in the nuclear deal are an obvious magnet for corruption; the security risks inherent in the technology offer a million more excuses for secrecy.
The nuclear decision is justified by the conventional wisdom that we need infrastructure-intensive economic development to meet “the needs of our people”, that economic development demands economic growth, and economic growth demands huge power stations. Some consider it to be a necessary low-carbon alternative: South Africans are mostly unaware of the technological revolution unfolding globally in the renewable energy sector.
Activists question the nuclear decision on the grounds of radiation and proliferation risks. They point out that no country has solved the problem of how to deal with high- level radioactive waste and that it is highly unlikely that a problem that has so far defeated the likes of the US and Japan will be solved by SA. Despite having had nearly 20 years since the end of apartheid to find a responsible solution for managing high-level waste, Eskom continues to stack it up in racks at Koeberg, just as was done — disastrously — at Fukushima. The National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute, unfunded, exists nowhere but on paper.
Is a growing pile of unmanageable and lethal waste the legacy we wish to pass on to our children? The cost is more than ethical: the UK’s annual nuclear waste management bill is currently £2bn a year — an annual arms deal in perpetuity.
The logistics and ethics of nuclear waste management are just part of the governance equation. It is remarkable that those who call for a proper investigation of the arms deal and who challenge the Protection of State Information Bill are not thinking about the risks to democracy that accompany the nuclear project.
Alvin Weinberg, the former head of the US nuclear weapons research facility, came to question whether nuclear energy is compatible with liberal democracy because its complexity and security risks exclude proper democratic oversight.
The nuclear logic appears impeccable to the kind of technocrat that underestimates the human factor implicit in big-footprint high technology. These planners rarely anticipate the real-world messiness of nuclear power, which ranges from communities affected by uranium mining, armies of exploited labour even in countries such as Japan, and inevitable human error in managing complex systems, to the challenges of managing these technologies over time.
Recently, for example, US military engineers charged with disassembling 40- year-old ultra high-yield nuclear weapons had to invent new technology for doing so — the engineers, tools and skills used to build the bombs had all died or been lost. Hypnotised by technology, we regularly forget how fragile and indispensable is our human capital.
The judg ments of the business world on nuclear technology are unequivocal. Nowhere does capital invest in nuclear without government support and guarantees. Moody’s downgrades power utilities that have nuclear in their portfolios, saying, in 2009: “History gives us reason to be concerned about possible significant balance- sheet challenges, the lack of tangible efforts today to defend the existing ratings, and the substantial execution risk involved in building new nuclear power facilities.”
Citigroup, commenting two years ago on UK nuclear plans, wrote that, “Three of (five key) risk areas are so big and significant that, if they go wrong, the developer (even the biggest utilities) could be financially damaged beyond repair. These risks can be classed as Corporate Killers.”
Even the World Bank refuses to fund nuclear projects.
What of the opportunities that would be missed if capital that should go to renewable energy goes to nuclear energy instead?
A great many South African business people accept the need for social responsibility in their planning. They understand that an economy bedevilled by inequality is one also beset by many development problems. Inequality strangles demand, creates skills shortages, and increases risks of crime and disease, just for starters. It also threatens social and political instability, as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has pointed out.
So dealing with poverty and inequality is urgent. Yet the nuclear decision ignores the opportunities for decentralised economic development and badly needed job creation that would come with renewable energy, clearly outlined by the United Nations Development Programme.
The nuclear path will compound centralisation and elitism, lead to huge capital exports and necessitate importing expensive, highly skilled foreign labour.
There’s a further danger. The nuclear expansion programme has been justified by extremely ambitious economic growth projections, made in the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which lays out the country’s electricity planning for the next 20 years.
These projections looked ambitious even before the euro-zone crisis began to unfold. They are of an order that has been questioned by Gordhan. But Rand Merchant Bank , in a much-ignored research paper, has projected that as Eskom’s price increases take effect, overall demand for electricity will, rather than doubling as the IRP projects, in fact decline. Our real future needs for electricity, in other words, may be substantially lower than Eskom suggests.
Because uranium (unlike sunshine) is a limited commodity, the nuclear path commits us to constantly rising energy costs and, during construction, locking in our exposure to an increasingly volatile global economy.
Smarter countries are now building in resilience and stability through renewable energy. Iceland attributes its quick recovery from the recent collapse of its financial sector to its strong renewable energy base.
Much of the rest of the world is leaping to take up the renewables challenge, with developing countries now overtaking developed countries: $72bn worth of new investment last year and 32% up overall on 2009. By contrast, no new nuclear installations came online in 2008, despite huge subsidies, while renewables drew $100bn in private investment. While nuclear costs escalate, the price of solar-generated electricity drops 7% a year in the US, and the trend, according to Scientific American, is accelerating.
Of course a national switch to renewable energy will bring its own technical and reskilling challenges. It will require substantial modifications to the national grid (although mind-sets seem to be most difficult to modify). Yet it is a transition that offers us the chance of renewing and stabilising our economy where nuclear does not, and it poses no threat at all to our democracy.
And often it is remarkably quick and easy and, unlike nuclear, precisely scalable to match demand. The nuclear fleet will take about 12 years to come online. Meanwhile, Eskom has just announced 1,5MW of new solar photovoltaic power. That is tiny, of course. But the delivery date? Next week.
Given all these dangers, costs and likely missed opportunities, why is the South African media, much of civil society and a business sector that usually abhors systemic risk giving the government a free pass on the nuclear issue?