By Gerard Boyce · 24 Sep 2014
In a story that has dominated headlines worldwide over the past few months, Scots were recently asked to decide whether Scotland should become an independent country or remain part of the United Kingdom. They chose to retain the status quo in what was ultimately a very close poll. Regardless of one’s opinion on the outcome thereof, this referendum exemplifies the type of situations, viz. when leaders seek a mandate to pursue major political changes, which will alter the nation’s socio-political structure, in which referendums are usually called. Despite this association, referendums can be sought to settle any major policy decision that has the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of social relations, both domestically and internationally, and which supersedes narrow party interests. Arguably, the pending decision to expand our nuclear energy generating capacity is the sort of decision, which ought to be put to a referendum in South Africa.
A number of valid reasons could be put forward in support of the call for a referendum. Firstly, the stakes involved are such that building these additional reactors will likely affect political, economic and social relations. The size of the financial outlay required, the unfathomable operational timelines involved, the cataclysmic uses to which nuclear technology can be put, not to mention the regulatory and legislative protections which are necessary for this industry to thrive, ensure that this decision will have far-reaching implications that will affect societal relations for generations to come. Moreover, as moves by other countries which seek to establish nuclear energy programs demonstrate, nuclear energy holds the power to change our national self-perception and by extension, the nature of our relations with the rest of the world community. This decision is thus far from business-as-usual and not merely a question of tallying up financial costs and benefits.
Furthermore, the evidence that policymakers have a mandate from South Africans in this regard is quite weak. Results of the few surveys that have actually canvassed South Africans’ attitudes thereon clearly reveal citizens’ limited knowledge of the threats and advantages presented by nuclear power. Little, too, is known about whether citizens are aware of any alternatives to the policy of expanding our nuclear energy capacity. By pushing through this policy in this situation, the government risks being accused of being undemocratic. In contrast, the recent Scottish referendum shows that referendums are a sure way to increase citizens’ knowledge of the various aspects of the issue under consideration and to galvanise members of those sections of the population, young people especially, who would not usually be captivated by politics.
Greater levels of knowledge increase the likelihood that votes offer a truer reflection of citizens’ attitudes and are not emotional or knee-jerk reactions to the appeals to job creation and poverty alleviation on which those in favour of expanding our nuclear energy capacity seem to rely. Affording citizens the opportunity to express their opinions on this issue via a referendum is also likely to strengthen democratic culture and civic participation. These are welcome benefits given the recent shenanigans in Parliament, which appear to show that a certain boorishness is beginning to slip into political discourse. Yet perhaps the most persuasive argument in favour of a national referendum on nuclear power might be that there are precedents in this regard. For example, countries as diverse as Sweden, Italy and Bulgaria have all held referendums on nuclear power.
Notwithstanding the reasons to support the call for a referendum on nuclear power that have been cited above, this call is just as likely to be opposed. Firm and fair objections could be lodged on several grounds. Foremost of these, it could be argued that referendums are expensive and that they rarely settle anything. By way of support for this latter contention, murmurings of when the question of Scottish independence will be put to a referendum again are already being heard. More generally, detractors might argue that referendums are a form of populism and could undermine the system of representative democracy. Seen from this perspective, referendums are unnecessary as elected officials are perfectly capable of making this decision.
Given the deafening silence surrounding this topic, however, and government’s apparent intention to proceed with the expansion of our nuclear energy capacity over and above the concerns that were raised in the National Development Plan, our blueprint for development in the foreseeable future, the probability that policymakers and politicians are able to do so seems rather slim. In deference to them, this could indicate that they are not very familiar with the issue themselves and are thus reluctant to speak out about it. Less flatteringly, their silence could imply that they believe that the outcome of this decision is a foregone conclusion and are afraid of falling out of favour.
Either possibility strongly suggests that treating the decision to build additional nuclear power stations as a routine political or administrative decision might not yield the most socially optimal outcome. Conversely, putting this singularly important decision to a separate referendum may free politicians and ordinary citizens alike to exercise their individual judgment and act in accordance with their conscience, something that seems in short supply in an era where party loyalty seems to be valued above all else.
Based on the arguments above, it is asserted that a referendum on nuclear power is both timely and warranted. Adapting the lyrics of a plaintive Scottish folk tune slightly, all that remains to be seen is whether policymakers are prepared take the low road towards greater levels of participatory democracy and forgo taking the high road of technocratic decision-making that has characterised decision-making around state-led projects that are supposedly meant to be in the interests of national development.
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Adopt a "least-regret approach" as NDP recommends. Part 1
>>"For example, countries as diverse as Sweden, Italy and Bulgaria have all held referendums on nuclear power."
The devil is always in the detail. What forced these extremes and did voter participation merit the efforts?
>> "Arguably, the pending decision to expand our nuclear energy generating capacity is the sort of decision, which ought to be put to a referendum in South Africa..."
A referendum to win the approval of the national electorate 'to expand our nuclear energy generating capacity' is technically possible in terms of subsection 84 (2) (g) of the Constitution, 1996 that gives the responsibility to the President to call 'national referendums' in terms of an Act of Parliament.
Whether it will be politically expedient to call a national referendum for this purpose however remains to be seen.
Much depends imho on the roadmap(s) (read decision-making processes) towards a decision(s) that may impact negatively on certain localities/communities and I believe that it will be irresponsible to force any national will on them without their prior explicit consent.
>> "all that remains to be seen is whether policymakers are prepared take the low road towards greater levels of participatory democracy and forgo taking the high road of technocratic decision-making..."
I think it is vice versa. The moral low-road will be secretive 'technocratic decision making'.
The moral high-road is a constitutional imperative, seeking greater levels of 'participatory democracy' to ensure â€˜accountability, responsiveness and opennessâ€™ as per subsection 1 (d) of the Constitution, 1996.
Participatory democracy however comes in different forms.
Subsections 57 (1) (b), 70 (1) (b) and 116 (1) (b) of the Constitution, 1996 makes provision for both houses of Parliament and Provincial Legislators to-
'make rules and orders concerning its business, with due regard to representative and participatory democracy, accountability, transparency and public involvement.'
Pollution control, environment and disaster management are defined as functional areas of concurrent national and provincial legislative competence whilst provincial planning is defined as an exclusive provincial legislative competence in terms of Schedule 4 of the Constitution, 1996.
Both the National Government and one or more Provincial Governments are therefore involved.
To be continued...
Adopt a 'least-regret approach' as NDP recommends. Part 2
According to the National Development Plan (NDP) "South Africa will need to meet about 29 000 megawatts (MW) of new power demand between now and 2030. A further 10 900 MW of old power capacity will be retired. As a result, about 40 000 MW of new power capacity needs to be built. Eskom is building two more coal-fired power stations, each with capacity of about 4800 MW - leaving a clear gap' of, according to my calculations, of 30 400 MW. That means a further 6.3 Medupi/Kusile Power Stations must be financed and constructed whilst, also according the NDP, '(c)oal miners are unwilling to sign new long-term contracts with Eskom, as they get much higher returns through exports to India and other Asian countries.' This may be short-lived. China and India is also expanding their nuclear capabilities with Russia as partner and a major contractor.
Peak coal fired power generation has probably been reached in SA and probably also in Asia.
The world is forced to investigate and develop all alternatives, including nuclear power.
There is little doubt in my mind how the hapless communities in and around the central coal basin and the Waterberg coal field will vote in a national referendum if they must live with the pollution of more conventional coal power stations in their midst.
According to the NDP the Department of Energy's Integrated Resource Plan (2010 - 2030)...includes 21500 MW of new renewable energy capacity by 2030..."
Is this 21500 MW estimate realistic? Do renewable green energy such as solar and wind, which everybody should favour, in fact have the sway to fill this gap?
In any event and according to my calculations, this Integrated Resource Plan leaves SA with further gap of 8 900 MW or 8,9 gigawatt (GW).
â€¢ The M&G 'South Africa's Integrated Resource Plan 2010 makes provision for 9.6 gigawatts of nuclear power, with that capacity expected to come online by 2030.'
â€¢ Engineering News 'South Africa has an energy plan in place to build six new nuclear power plants by 2030, providing 9 600 megawatts (MW) of power at a cost estimated between R400-billion and R1-trillion ($36-billion to $89.9-billion).'
This 8,9 or 9,6 GW gap leaves space e.g. for 8 Russian-built VVER-1200 nuclear reactors with an â€˜expected 60 year lifetime at 90% capacity factorâ€™ that must meet all the safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is a massive investment far into the future.
But the following questions remain-
-Why nuclear power?
-What about nuclear waste that is also a pollution/health risk?
-Have all alternatives been exhausted?
We know now that Mozambique has vast supplies of gas that cannot be ignored - it is in our own best interest to prioritise and maximise regional development and trade with our neighbours.
To be continued...
Adopt a 'least-regret approach' as NDP recommends. Part 3
>>"...government's apparent intention to proceed with the expansion of our nuclear energy capacity over and above the concerns that were raised in the National Development Plan..."
The NDP makes provision for 'possible investments in nuclear energy'.
This is what the NDP says-
1. Investigate the implications of greater nuclear energy use, including the potential costs, safety, environmental benefits, localisation, and employment opportunities, uranium enrichment aspects, fuel fabrication, and the dangers of weapons proliferation. A decision-making process to support the assessment of possible investments in nuclear energy (or alternative base-load options) will be defined.
2. As SA seeks an appropriate balance between responding to climate change concerns and employing least-cost power generation technologies to propel economic growth, it will adopt a least-regret approach.
3. A maximum of one year remains to agree on a decision-making process for new nuclear investments.
4. An 'economy-wide' carbon tax 'may still make sense' to the National Planning Commission because it will confirm to the power generation industry and consumers alike that we live in a 'carbon-constrained world'. Electricity prices will increase accordingly.
5. A conditional carbon tax exemption could be applied to the electricity sector, provided it progressively moves to a lower carbon generation mix, as mandated in the Integrated Resource Plan. This would significantly increase renewable energy and diversify generation sources.
Urgent lifestyle changes for especially the more affluent members of SA society are indicated.
In conclusion, I will not be surprised if the construction of 4 to 8 new nuclear power stations each with 2 nuclear reactors that conforms to the most stringent IAEA safety specifications possible, is in fact unavoidable if we want to stimulate economic growth, reduce poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Calling for a national referendum at this stage seems premature but if the National Government or any of the Provincial Governments involved neglect 'participatory democracy, accountability, transparency and public involvement' especially with regard to affected local communities, they will undoubtedly be guilty of neglect of duty.