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Nuclear: A phone call away?

The good news is that 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 achieve this.

Following some time with French nuclear company Areva, DA MP David Ross recently told 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.

Investing in nuclear power would effectively lock us into a centrally controlled power system, much like the coal-based one we have today. These systems have a built-in inertia towards decentralised power schemes which will make a move to renewables all the more difficult down the line.

Deciding to go nuclear today means that in the future, as renewable energies improve and become increasingly cheap, South Africa will be stuck on the track to nuclear, unable to take advantage of renewables. And just think how renewable technology will develop over the course of the next decade. While the rest of the world will be taking advantage of truly clean energy, South Africa will still be stuck paying massively for a nuclear system that won’t even have come online yet.

There is ample evidence from countries who have taken the nuclear route, that nuclear power always turns out much more expensive than initial cost estimates. And there are always delays. It’s 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’s far from clean. It produces radioactive waste and causes radioactive pollution all through the nuclear chain, affecting communities and environments all over the world. The bottom line is that no solution has yet been found for the safe and secure storage of the dangerous waste over such a long time period. We may be able to store it underground, or drop it to the bottom of the ocean, but those “solutions” are far from actually dealing with the radio-active waste.

So, again, why not ditch the macho dreams of being a nuclear country and rather invest in renewables?

A study just published by Stanford University reports: “Based on our findings, there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources,” said Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will.”

There are more and more reports on how renewable energy is a viable and cost-effective fix to our energy problems. In addition it turns out that renewables are also a very good investment because of their job-creation potential. While many argue that job creation and action on climate change are mutually exclusive, it seems that, in fact, when it comes to renewables, the two goals are extremely compatible: going green is not only good for the planet, but for development too.

In a recent report by Greenpeace Africa it was found that investing in renewable energy would create a net increase of 78 000 jobs by 2030 compared to business as usual scenarios. Even when compared to the utopian “Growth Without Constraints” scenario, the benefits of substantially investing in renewable energy were clear, creating 5% more jobs.

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: clean, safe, and it will also boost job creation at the same time. I know which I’d choose.

Special thanks to Dr Rianne Teule for her input and guidance in writing this blog.