The good news is that senior energy department officials have been facing pressure from MPs to cut South Africa's dependence on coal. The bad news is that a few MPs seem to think that nuclear energy can help to move beyond coal power.
Iol reports that DA MP David Ross recently visited the French nuclear company AREVA, and now tells the portfolio committee on energy that the company was “just a phone call away” from being able to install six nuclear power plants in South Africa.
Ross, having listened closely to his French nuclear host AREVA, creates the impression that nuclear is a quick fix to our energy needs. In fact, nuclear energy is a very slow, long-term investment. Even if the "phone call" was made today, it would be more than a decade before those nuclear plants could provide electricity. And once they do start supplying energy we'll be locked into an energy system that really is not as 'green' and cheap as the MPs think.
There is ample evidence from countries that have taken the nuclear route, that nuclear power always turns out much more expensive than initial cost estimates. No wonder that nuclear power is often described as “the most expensive way to boil water.”
Also although nuclear energy might cause fewer carbon emissions than fossil fuels, it is certainly far from clean. It produces radioactive waste and causes radioactive pollution all through the nuclear chain, affecting communities and environment all over the world. No solution has yet been found for the safe and secure storage of the dangerous waste over such a long time period, which potentially spans many Ice Ages.
A nuclear-free energy scenario
Government is developing a 20-year plan for the expansion of electricity supply. Greenpeace Africa and many other members of civil society submitted comments on the draft plan, criticising the strong reliance on nuclear power in each of the different energy scenarios. The department of energy will now release a new nuclear-free scenario in February.
The department decided on the nuclear-free scenario in light of arguments that renewable energy can viably replace the need for nuclear power.
Some people argue that a clean energy revolution conflicts with job creation, that going green is not good for development.
However in the report “South African, Energy Sector Jobs to 2030” released by Greenpeace Africa last year, the exact opposite was found: investing in renewable energy creates a net increase of 78,000 jobs by 2030 compared to business as usual scenarios.
The report compares the job creation potential of three different energy scenarios. The first is the Energy [R]evolution scenario, which sets out a vision for a clean energy future. The second is derived from the International Energy Agency 2007 World Energy Outlook for Africa. Finally, the third 'Growth Without Constraints' scenario was published by the South African Government and was designed to reflect the country's energy future in the absence of climate change, with no oil constraints, and if no effort was made to internalise externalities.
Comparing these three scenarios, it was found that a clean energy future "could be a major employment creator in South Africa, with a net increase of 78,000 jobs by 2030". Even when compared to the utopian 'Growth Without Constraints' scenario, the benefits of an Energy [R]evolution are clear, creating 5% more jobs.
So, what's it going to be?
As the world's 14th biggest carbon emitter, South Africa is making a huge contribution to climate change. We have to choose a new energy pathway. On one hand we have nuclear energy: slow, expensive, risky and creating radioactive waste that is extremely dangerous for humans and the environment. On the other hand we have renewable energy in combination with efficient use of energy providing an energy revolution, while boosting job creation at the same time. I know what my choice will be....