21 December 2011

South Africa's Nuclear Hubris


We, members and representatives of faith communities, ask our Minster of Energy, Dipuo Peters, to meet with us and our advisers as a matter of urgency - rather than only with the energy corporations who command most of her attention - to discuss our energy future in South Africa.

In a recent Mail & Guardian article, Minister Peters claimed that South Africa still needs our considerable coal resources and must invest in nuclear. These claims have no sound moral basis - they are founded in the narrowest conceptions of what is economically viable and betray the limited vision of the Minister's advisers. For coal is immensely destructive of human health, climate and future wealth while the pursuit of nuclear energy with its immense costs, risks and health and security hazards is the ultimate expression of the sin of pride.

Love and compassion must guide our decision making for current and future generations. If they were part of the calculations of our Minister's department, they would not dream of taking these risks. The basis for our decisions should always be what is good for people and planet and not what is profitable, and profitable only in the short term, at great cost to our future.

We know that to maintain the health of the planet - and so our own health - we must follow the laws of nature - and, the faith communities would add, of God. When we deviate from the laws of the universe, nature and of God, we cause disruption and destruction to the natural world - and to us, for we are bound to our Mother Earth's wellbeing. When we behave as if resources are unlimited, or as if accidents do not happen, or as if natural disasters only occur elsewhere, or as if human beings are never tragically fallible, we invite disaster.

We must ask: how can the department of energy tell our children that they must find a solution for storing our high-level nuclear waste when you have not yet even funded a solution for the waste from Koeberg and carefully exclude future waste-storage costs from the projected costs of planned new plants?

How can our government make us slaves to the ever-rising costs of scarce and limited resources? In the US, the five states with the highest proportion of renewable energy have the most stable energy prices. This tells us that our prosperity demands more renewable energy ambition.

It is also extraordinary that this decision has been taken in such haste despite the visible ongoing tragedy of Fukushima, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and where a far more technologically advanced country than SA is barely managing to cope with a nuclear disaster. Looking at such loss, at the destruction of communities, is heartbreaking. Where is the heart in our government, we must ask, that it is prepared to take such immense risks?

Already, Eskom in its arrogance is serving expropriation orders to people in order to build these monsters - threatening livelihoods in the Western Cape.

While the morality of these decisions is our primary concern, we do not ignore practicalities. In fact, it often seems government ignores the deeper practicalities. Leading economists tell us that the more we delay action on climate change, the faster we destroy future prosperity - yet we persist with the climate-destroying Medupi and Kusile coal stations, fuelling our own destruction.

The Fukushima disaster shut down 11 of Japan's nuclear reactors, at least six of which are now condemned - but the Japanese Wind Power Association declared that there was no damage at all to its members' facilities, from either the earthquake or the tsunami. Within three weeks of the disaster, Fukushima operator TEPCO, one of the five largest electricity utilities in the world, lost more than three-quarters of its share value, while the Japan Wind Development Company nearly doubled its stock price.

Again and again, it is argued that South Africa's economy will depend on nuclear reactors - yet around the world, sensible business people are putting their money into renewable, not nuclear, energy.

Tragic numbers of our youth despair of their chances of ever getting jobs; renewable energy creates more, and more decentralised, jobs than nuclear energy - but still, we are given nuclear.

The big companies who will be the primary beneficiaries of these facilities promise economic development. We know this is the urgent concern of government, but it will be of the same kind that has long bedevilled South Africa - generating as much inequality, poverty, economic risk and pollution as it does electricity and commodity exports.

Of course we want economic development, in those sectors that need it, for the dignity and wellbeing of our people. We insist on it. We recognise that South Africa needs some expansion of energy supply, and replacement of older sources.

But there is no need for nuclear power - wind and solar power technologies are rapidly advancing; recently, a solar power plant in Spain was able to supply the grid for 24 hours. Clearly, these are the technologies of the future - not only for their ability to supply reliable power but also because they are renewable, while both uranium and coal are finite non-renewable resources and will eventually run out. Why postpone this reckoning - why foist an even bigger problem on our children, and their children?

There are also vital questions that must be asked about the feasibility of the proposed nuclear construction schedule. An international World Watch Institute report of 2011 revealed that there are serious constraints on the manufacture of key reactor components that are likely to greatly slow down commissioning dates - compounding the universal tendency of nuclear projects to cost far more than the initially projected costs.

Renewable energy is in many instances already cheaper than nuclear. Even where it is more expensive, those planning these plants have no right to incur risks to human health that will persist for thousands of years for the sake of short and medium-term savings. To do so tramples on the constitutional rights of future generations to enjoy an environment as safe and as abundant as that which we have inherited. In the words of Jane Goodall, we are stealing the future from our children.

Nuclear costs only climb - yet the price of wind turbines is declining, and solar photovoltaic prices are tumbling even faster. In 2010, all renewables excluding large hydro received $151 billion of global private investment (nuclear got none) and surpassed nuclear power's total global installed capacity.

We are disturbed that the myth that renewable energy cannot provide base load electricity continues to be perpetuated. In our meetings with university researchers, a totally different picture is painted, with almost unlimited new opportunities for renewable energy to meet the energy requirements of our society.

Much hard work by civil society last year helped to pushed more renewable energy into the IRP2010 electricity planning process. In spite of this the IRP was still not a true reflection of the submissions made. The renewable energy submissions showed far greater opportunity for renewable energy generation than has been accepted by the IRP. It is absurd that a country like South Africa should have a long term plan of only 9% of renewable energy when we have much greater solar radiation than countries with higher renewable energy production plans. Our ambitions are pathetic compared to India and China.

As well-governed countries like Germany turn away from nuclear, why do we not see similar ambition in our own politicians to lead us into the energy future? Instead, you seem to be insisting on perpetuating old energy solutions that are deferring immense problems to future generations.

So we ask you, Minister Peters, meet with us. We have been seeking dialogue for a number of years. We hope that our country's experience at COP 17 has made it clearer that government and civil society - including the faith communities - need to work together.

Again we declare, it is our people's health and wellbeing and security that must be paramount, assured by a healthy planet - not the profits of foreign multinationals or the nuclear prestige of our politicians.

Bishop Geoff Davies is the executive director of the Southern African Faith Communities' Environment Institute (SAFCEI).

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