Keep South Africa’s Lights on with Renewable Energy – or Irradiate a Darkened Nation?

Durban, South Africa.

After an explosive start to his State of the Nation Address last week, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma turned to nuclear, coal, fracking and offshore drilling projects – but what about the country’s free sunshine, wind and tides?

Last Thursday night in Cape Town’s Parliament hall, South Africa’s newest and cheekiest political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), fought gamely but lost their two dozen seats for the evening. They were expelled during the State of the Nation speech when making what they termed a ‘point of order’: asking whether President Jacob Zuma would ‘pay back the money’ (about $20 million) that the state illegitimately spent on upgrading his rural mansion. As police ushered them out with extreme force, seven were hospitalised, one with a broken jaw.

The society only saw the fracas on journalists’ cellphones later, because the SABC public broadcaster refused to screen the floor, panning only a small area where the Parliamentary leadership were gesticulating for police action. Showing surprising technical prowess but extremely weak political judgment, Zuma’s security officials had jammed cellphone and Wifi signlas in the hall just before the event began, creating outrage by opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) and journalists alike. The centre-right Democratic Alliance then walked out in protest against armed police having cleared out the EFF MPs.

The dust settled 45 minutes later, with Zuma chortling and African National Congress (ANC) MPs cheering, and most observers sickened by the spectacle.

Still, much more important news would follow, though in the dull tone that Zuma reserves for formal speeches. Given the country’s fury at electricity load-shedding – near daily outages of 2-4 hours – many were relieved that a substantial 14% of Zuma’s talk was dedicated to this theme: ‘We are doing everything we can to resolve the energy challenge.’

Listen more closely, though. Aside from building three huge coal-fired power plants, two of which are mired in construction crises, the other long-term supply strategy, accounting for one in six of his words on energy, is nuclear. By 2030 a fleet of reactors is meant to provide 9600 MW. Today we have 42 000 MW installed, of which 39 000 comes from coal. But the economy uses just 30 000 at peak. What with so much capacity unavailable, load-shedding is set to continue for at least the next three years.

To truly ‘resolve’ not defer the challenge will require a huge roll-out of public investment. The $2 billion Zuma promised the electricity parastatal Eskom on Thursday is only a fraction of the vast bills we can see on the horizon, including $28 billion for just two of the three projected coal-fired stations, Medupi and Kusile. Together they will deliver 9600 MegaWatts capacity, which comes in at $3 million/MW for construction only, i.e. not including ongoing costs of coal and maintenance, nor the vast environmental damage from these mega-projects’ mega-pollution. Local water, land and air are being poisoned by coal, and climate change will be exacerbated by 30 million annual tonnes of CO2 emitted by each of the coal burners.

One reason for the high cost is the mounting repayment liability for the World Bank’s largest-ever loan, for $3.75 billion. South African environmentalists, community activists and trade unions, as well as Business Day newspaper and the Democratic Alliance, opposed the loan five years ago; were there justice, it should now be considered ‘Odious Debt’.

One reason they were united was what the public protector had in 2009 termed Medupi’s ‘improper’ conflicts of interest involving Eskom chairperson Valli Moosa. Though he was on the ANC Finance Committee at the time, Moosa approved Hitachi as the main supplier of the $3.3 billion boilers, knowing that the ANC’s Chancellor House had a 25% share of its local subsidiary.

That share was secretly sold to a mainly internal management team last July. But by all accounts the ANC investment was a fiasco, even top leaders including then Treasurer Matthews Phosa and Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan admitted.

The ANC is very good at winning elections, but its boiler-making skills need improvement: no fewer than 7000 welds required repair last year, which was one of the main reasons for the three-year delay in firing up Medupi. Further delays are anticipated due to a failure to properly test the boilers with sufficient steam pressure.

Next comes nuclear. The cost of $100 billion for 9 600 new MW of power – a guestimate at this stage – does not include ongoing expenses for uranium, transport and permanent safe storage. Illustrating the financial risk, the main French company bidding for SA’s attention is Areva, the world’s largest nuke builder – a company facing potential bankruptcy after its credit rating was cut to junk status in November.

Another huge risk is obvious: corruption. Last Thursday, Zuma proclaimed ‘a fair, transparent, and competitive procurement process to select a strategic partner or partners to undertake the nuclear build programme.’ Hmmmm. Replies Moulana Riaz Simjee of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, ‘This nuclear deal poses an enormous corruption risk. It is happening in secret and will make the arms deal look like a walk in the park.’

With prescient timing, the Mail&Guardian last week exposed a Moscow foreign ministry website which provides details about the extent of the nuclear deal that Zuma had already cut with Vladimir Putin six months ago. The contract indemnifies Russian suppliers from any nuclear accident liabilities and gives ‘special favourable treatment’ for taxes.

A durable concern with nuclear energy is safety because three of the world’s most technically advanced countries – Japan, Russia and the US – conclusively demonstrated its catastrophic danger at Fukushima (2011), Chernobyl (1996) and Three Mile Island (1979).

When SA’s only nuclear power plant, Koeberg, was hurriedly shut down in 2006 due to ‘human instrumentality’, as Minister of Public Enterprises Alec Erwin initially described the ‘sabotage’ (actually, just a loose bolt), he drew attention to the nuclear energy proliferation threat: the damage a dirty bomb can do if waste gets into terrorists’ hands.

Indeed, the real Koeberg sabotage was carried out in 1982 by ANC Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers under the command of fabled Communist Party leader Joe Slovo. The bombings caused $45 million worth of damage just prior to the plant’s launch, a major blow against apartheid.

But post-apartheid security forces were also humiliated, twenty years later, when Greenpeace activists snuck into Koeberg using dinghies, climbed a seawater pump building and unfurled banners to illustrate the ease of entry – and resulting danger to Cape Town – were the nuclear plant to again come under attack.

Greenpeace continues vibrant anti-nuke protests, this month bringing the ship Rainbow Warrior to local ports and last week, once again unveiling its opponents’ security lapses by disrupting the opening session of Cape Town’s 2nd Nuclear Industry Congress Africa with a banner hang declaring, ‘Nuclear investments cost the earth.’

Other civil society activists work hard against nuclear: to name a few, the National Union of Mineworkers’ Sibusiso Mimi, Mike Kantey from the Coalition against Nuclear Energy and, in Jeffreys Bay where one of the world’s greatest surf waves is threatened by a proposed power plant, Trudy Malan from the Thyspunt Alliance.

Such citizen advocacy helped halt South Africa’s zany Pebble Bed nuclear experiments, in which a generator was meant to be collapsed on top of pebble storage units after its life span, saving storage costs. But regrettably $1.5 billion of taxpayer funding was wasted, mostly under Finance Minister Trevor Manuel’s nose (his successor Pravin Gordhan pulled the plug).

In 2005, Earthlife Africa and the Pelindaba Working Group had a duel with former President Thabo Mbeki over the nuclear danger. Mashile Philane and Muna Lakhani were amongst those who discovered high radioactivity near Pelindaba nuclear instrument calibration site a few dozen kilometres west of Pretoria.

According to geologist Stefan Cramer, radiation readings at Pelindaba were 200 times higher than naturally occurs, and moreover, within a few meters of a housing project. Radioactive ores were buried in shallow concrete containers, with an open gate and inadequate warning signs.

This humiliated Mbeki at a bad time, just prior to his receiving the United Nations Champion of the Earth award in New York. He attacked the environmentalists’ ‘reckless statements’ as ‘totally impermissible.’ His energy minister, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (who is now UN Under-Secretary-General and head of UN Women), threatened Earthlife with legislation against ‘incitement’ and ‘the spreading of panic-causing information.’

Within hours, however, the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa confirmed the problem by constructing a new fence and putting up hazard signs. ‘I admit that the fence around the area is not up to scratch,’ said spokesperson Nomsa Sithole.

Thank goodness for the civil society watchdogs because, likewise, Zuma has a penchant for risky energy. Last Thursday he again endorsed fracking shale gas drilling in the sensitive Karoo region (by Shell, which recently was forced to pay Nigeria $5 billion to clean up oil spills). He also repeated last July’s commitment to the allegedly ‘game-changing’ Operation Phakisa Ocean Economy initiative: proposed oil and gas drills by ExxonMobil and a dodgy Burmese company several kilometers off KwaZulu-Natal’s beautiful coastline, in the dangerous Agulhas current at depths of up to 3.5 km.

Karoo fracking and KZN’s offshore oil drills are opposed by three winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize for activists: Bobby Peek (1998), Jonathan Deal (2013) and Desmond D’Sa (2014). But waning profits from extraction may prove to be the decisive factor: huge drilling costs and potential ecological liabilities, during a period of depressed oil and gas prices.

And the much-vaunted Chinese market for imported coal, which companies used to justify their toxic pockmarking of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, collapsed 5% last year, with further decline expected as China’s growth both slows and greens.

We really don’t need this risky behaviour. In three years from 2013-15, at least 2500 MW of renewable energy capacity will have been constructed in South Africa. According to Simjee, ‘Eskom itself has completed the construction of the Sere Wind Farm, which is already delivering 100 megawatts to the grid, well ahead of its intended launch in March this year.’ Sere’s cost is just $2.3 million/MW, far below all competitors, with no operating expenses aside from occasional maintenance.

These are supply-side enhancements, and will take time. For more rapid relief, on the demand side it appears Eskom is overdue in addressing wastage by the minerals and smelting corporations. The Energy Intensive Users Group’s 31 members use 44% of our electricity, and their Resource Curse has diminished the integrity of South African politics, economics, society, public health and environment.

Instead of endorsing nuclear-powered corruption, the moment is surely nearing for the state’s phase-out of subsidised energy to foreign corporations? The capital-intensive, high-energy guzzling firms need to be replaced by civil society’s low-energy, high-employment ‘Million Climate Jobs’ campaign alternatives.

Big cuts are possible: apparently, Eskom CEO Tshediso Matona insisted that the largest firms chop power consumption by 15% on Thursday so as to prevent embarrassing load-shedding during the Zuma speech.

But to get there, between Zuma’s business-as-usual speech and Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s February 25 budget, civil society will have to step up the pressure dramatically.

Practically, that puts greater pressure on the new United Front of metalworkers and their social movement allies who are planning national demonstrations that day. What they demand will hopefully become common cause in the citizenry: ecologically sane, economically affordable and socially just access to clean energy.

This is yet another issue area that needs vital attention, amongst so many others. But for those aiming to breed a herd of nuclear White Elephants in coming years, maybe the opening theatrics before Zuma’s speech can resonate; maybe the EFF’s insistent call to, ‘pay back the money’, will prove a deterrent to those with nuclear fantasies.

Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: