Nuclear Power Will Lead to Economic Ruin

By Glenn Ashton · 14 Jul 2011

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The technocrats are on the ascent and nuclear power is yet again on the cards for South Africa. How has the moratorium of 2008 been reversed? How can nuclear power, which was then considered an unaffordable option, suddenly have become affordable again? This is a story with many twists and turns.

The nuclear lobby is, like any major industry, well resourced. It has consistently managed to project positions, which appear logical and reasonable – that nuclear power is safe, reduces greenhouse emissions and is reliable. It also claims nuclear power should be an integral part of the mix of energy generation systems, especially in light of global warming because it emits less CO2 than fossil fuel sources. 

Nuclear is easy to justify against coal power, the worlds dominant and most dangerous power source. Coal releases vast amounts of noxious gases releasing mercury and creating acid rain and global warming. Mining coal is environmentally damaging and dangerous.

But when we consider nuclear power we must figure its affordability against a full suite of alternatives. For starters, let's take fossil fuel power generation off the table. That is so yesterday, it has to go.

Sustainable energy is rapidly becoming competitive. Wind and solar power can already compete directly with fossil fuels and nuclear power. The game-changer in sustainable energy in South Africa could be energy from ocean currents, tapping into our constant 5 kph (kilometers per hour) ocean river, the Aghulas current that runs down our East Coast. This can provide the elusive holy grail of sustainable energy – a constant base load electricity supply. All we need to provide is the plant – the fuel is free.

There are other sustainable energy base load options. Concentrated solar is one, solar chimneys another. Wave power has huge potential. Heat conversion and capture from ocean themoclines and deep mines is also attractive.

While nuclear is presented as a safe, mature industry, appearances are deceptive. First, the full cost accounting for nuclear remains vague. Each nuclear site must be cared for up to a century after ceasing operation. Decommissioning, maintenance, waste management and storage, along with a raft of other hidden costs are generally excluded in initial cost estimates. The true costs of decommissioning nuclear power stations is constantly rising, exemplified by experience in the UK where estimated decommissioning costs exceed GBP 73 billion (R788bn).

More importantly, any claims about the proof of safety of nuclear power are equally moot. It is a question that is routinely fudged with platitudes. The nuclear industry is in exactly the same position as the agricultural chemical industry, which has had undeniable influence in increased cancer and disease rates around the world. The problem is that it is impossible to quantify, isolate or detail the consequences of disparate impacts like radioactive particles or chemical pollutants. 

These industries rely on repeated denial of their impacts. The problem is that science is unable to isolate the causes and effects of either chemical or radiation health or environmental damage. The reality is that cancer rates have soared in concert with the introduction of these two technologies. While proponents may claim safety, strong indications of harm remain. But with no proof one cannot make a case. This conflation of proof enables these and other dangerous industrial practices to slip beneath the radar. The fact is that an absence of proof does not, by any stretch of the imagination, equate to an absence of harm. 

When debating the safety of atomic energy, data can be cherry-picked by either side. More relevant is the volume and power that each side can muster. This is where industry always comes out on top.

Any industry has a primary goal: To champion its particular perspective in order to maximise success and profit. This institutional single-mindedness usually trumps the broader, more disparate perspective of opponents who represent widely differing social interests. Against this background, politics plays a key role in setting the playing field with the most powerful support emanating from wealthy, conservative backers. Consequently proponents are more likely to succeed in achieving their focused goals.

This dynamic underlies the success of most industrial lobbies in shaping policy. It is how agricultural and chemical industries have successfully gained regulatory approval for thousands of noxious chemicals to enter our food chain. So, too, with nuclear interests. And we cannot forget the nuclear industry has always been cosily aligned with the military industrial complex and its power relationships, enhancing access to decision makers.

Some nuclear supporters masquerade as objective overseers of the industry. The International Atomic Energy Agency not only regulates, but also actively pursues the interests of the nuclear industry. Major industrial groups like General Electric, Westinghouse and Alstrom overtly promote nuclear power through direct lobbying. The industry has a lengthy track record of underhand lobbying tactics and power plays, which place it firmly in the same league as the chemical or arms industries. 

In South Africa, conservative free market commentators like Kelvin Kemm and Andrew Kenny are the nuclear industry's attack dogs. There is little objective analysis of nuclear power by political leaders. The technology is adopted as a result of ideology and the corporate political nexus working through established hierarchies at international and national levels. 

In South Africa, the alignment between the military and political centres of power was key to nuclear success during the apartheid regime. The lobby has now focused on the technophiles and BEE links within and around the present ruling structures. 

Despite initial opposition to the nuclear industry, the ANC has been wooed by the superficial attractions and deep pockets of the nuclear lobby, which has perpetuated its influence on both public and political opinion. A major flaw is the utterly non-transparent nature of our political funding regime, providing fertile ground for well-connected and emerging corporate nuclear interests to plough.

In his doctoral thesis on energy policy in South Africa, Andrew Marquard highlights the reality that “...nuclear policy has developed outside of an energy policy framework,” and that “despite significant institutional reform this trend has survived the end of apartheid and the process of democratisation.” 

Accordingly, our nuclear energy policy is dictated less by transparent political policy-making than by external influences. This is evident in the continued state support of the industry, epitomised by the saga of the ill-fated Pebble Bed Modular Reactor and the continued support of the Pelindaba nuclear complex.

Our nuclear expertise has been strategically nuanced as a jobs creation programme, as well as an avenue to utilise our significant uranium reserves. The South African government has swung to tacitly accept nuclear energy, both through internal lobbying and the external influence of national governments like France and the US. These relationships leverage potential trade in technological expertise and corporate product in exchange for fuel supply, perpetuating the neo-colonial model.

Now that the National Energy Regulator (NERSA) has been persuaded of the advisability of adopting nuclear power – we know of at least one member who is totally dismissive of the potential of renewables, while embracing nuclear – we must carefully consider the real potential costs of building a fleet of nuclear power stations.  

The true cost of adopting nuclear energy as a major component of our most recent Integrated Electricity Resource Plan (IRP) could seriously undermine the integrity of our national financial structures and balance of payments. If we contract the 9,600 megawatts of new nuclear build – more than five Koebergs - we may effectively bankrupt our government. Our credit rating would go south and approach the junk bond status of Greece and Portugal. This would cost us our financial independence. We would be dictated to by the Washington Consensus. The vultures of international finance would rub their hands in glee as the rich prize of South Africa finally lines up in their crosshairs. Our currency would be destabilised, our mineral reserves flogged off to all and sundry and our reputation for fiscal responsibility would lie in tatters. South Africa would simply become another victim of predatory capitalism. 

Is this hyperbole? Let's examine some figures. To install the nuclear capacity outlined in the IRP would conservatively cost us around R300 billion, using comparisons for similar nuclear plants being built or planned in the US and Finland. This is around a third of our total government income for 2011. Even spread over five or ten years our debt levels would soar. Add the costs of Medupi and Kusile and the situation is compounded. 

Given the history of how the nuclear industry operates around the world, dodgy dealers and decision makers are salivating about siphoning the cream off the top. The amounts concerned will make the R40 billion arms deal appear as child's play. Why are we even pursuing the nuclear option after it was declared unaffordable in 2008? Can we thank the lobbyists? What caused the shift in the political mindset? I posit it is money - plain, dirty and simple.

While the Fukushima disaster has had a massive impact on global perceptions of nuclear power and on the Japanese economy, our non-consultative policies place us in a dangerous financial decision. If a Fukushima type event happened here – and yes, it can – the economic impacts would be crippling. Can we afford to assume such a degree of risk? Remember, nuclear is uninsurable, all costs to be borne by the nation.

The estimated costs of our nuclear new build are nowhere near the true, final costs, even if things go swimmingly. Construction costs are half, or less, of the total cost of nuke power. Maintenance (bolts in turbines anyone?), refuelling, decommissioning and waste management are excluded. Uranium prices are set to soar. Fact is, nobody knows what nuclear power really costs. The solutions for waste management of nuclear fuel are far from established. The bills will come due to our progeny.

So, can we afford this project? While we certainly must shift away from the impending calamity of fossil fuels, can we accept that nuclear is really as attractive as its proponents claim? Can their promises hold up to scrutiny? If we invested similar amounts into renewable energy resources, could we not become world-beaters? 

Contrary to claims by our major energy policy makers, we can supply base load through renewable energy. We could feasibly become the first nation on earth to supply our total energy supply from ocean current power generation. By building a new industry from the ground up we can provide far more work opportunities, open up undeveloped parts of the country to energy generation and shift away from imported technology toward homegrown solutions. 

Given the lack of public participation in the development of our national energy policy and more importantly our electricity resource plan and its heavy reliance on the nuclear option, it is time to regain the democratic high ground and truly take power back to the people, for the people.

Our failure to act will consign our progeny to slavery under the yoke of capital interests. If you think electricity is expensive now, just wait, you ain't seen nothing yet. 

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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