This week, while my activist colleagues sounded the anti-nuclear drumbeat in Sandton, I had to put on my game face and go inside the IDC to listen to the very pro-nuclear stance we were protesting.
For an anti-nuclear person, sitting in pro-nuclear talks felt something like the ubiquitous car crashes on the N1 – I knew I shouldn’t even give it a look, but I just couldn’t tear myself away from the repetitive rhetoric and pandering going on in the room.
While the protest went on outside, the conference inside was everything I would have expected it to be, and that can be broken down into four themes:
The opening speaker, Bobby Godsell, chairman on Business Leadership South Africa, talked megawatts and expansion in true government IRP-style.
Now if I’d called some nuclear bigwigs together in one room, I’d prefer to address the pressing questions of “How do we deliver a nuclear project on time and on budget?” and “How do we find a way to effectively deal with nuclear waste?” instead of repeating numbers everyone’s heard before.
In a country (and continent) with a massive lack of infrastructure, housing and education, shouldn’t those at the helm of such a project be asking, “How can we think of delivering an expensive, outdated and risky technology to Africa at all?”
Failure to address the failings of nuclear power
Unless saying “the nuclear industry is a very young energy industry comparatively and it faces many challenges” is addressing the failures, the speakers were blind to the failings nuclear power has repeatedly had.
In fact, my favourite moment of the morning was during the Energy Minister’s speech (read by someone else from the Department of Energy since the Minister didn’t attend as planned), when the DoE member said that the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year showed how much the nuclear industry has learned from 1986’s disaster at Chernobyl because this time, no one died.
Minister Peters, does 150 000 Japanese people being displaced and losing a lot of their possessions show learning and growth? If this happens again and only 100 000 people are displaced, will that also be a good sign?
In any case, effects from radiation exposure are only seen after much longer than a year, so we cannot yet say that no one has died from that disaster.
Ignoring sustainable possibilities
The third person to address the conference was Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe in a pre-recorded video message. Now, I understand that he was addressing a pro-nuclear conference, but as deputy president, surely one still needs to be neutral on the topic and address all options. Motlanthe had absolutely nothing to say about a renewable energy future for our country. Not a single mention of the possibilities.
Germany recently set a world record by producing 22 gigawatts of solar power, which equal to 20 nuclear reactors acting at full capacity – is that not something we should be aspiring to instead of ignoring?
Secrecy and obstinacy
But perhaps the greatest irony of sitting in a pro-nuclear conference, while anti-nuclear drums beat outside the doors and civil society and communities around the country object to the government’s bullheaded energy plans, is hearing the minister in charge of those plans say “Political will is driven by public perception. We must empower citizens to make informed decisions about where their electricity comes from.”
Again, I ask you, Minister Peters – you won’t talk openly to the country about your department’s nuclear plans, so how are we supposed to make these informed decisions?
In place of conferences seeking to promote outdated nuclear technology in Africa, we should be seeing talks focusing on how renewable energy can create energy security, empower local communities, and combat climate change.