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The impact of nuclear in South Africa

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Judith Taylor − Branch Co-ordinator, EarthLife Africa Joburg

There can be no more significant time to be writing this than today, 18 August 2013. Yesterday, our National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) announced its approval for two smelters to be constructed at Pelindaba by the Nuclear Energy Company of South Africa (NECSA). These smelters are to be used to smelt the 14,000 tonnes of radioactive metal held on the site. They have also given the approval for cold commissioning. This is despite the very strong case put forward at the public hearing last year for not allowing the facility to be built. NECSA did not put forward a strong case, as they were unable to even put forward the cost of building the facility.

Our legacy of Acid Mine Water has moved beyond dangerous to critical with the water to be treated to remove the heavy metals but not the sulphates before release into our major waterways – the Vaal-Orange system and the Crocodile-Limpopo. This additional pollution burden will add to that of sewage, industrial and agricultural pollutants already compromising the rivers in South Africa. The cost to the Water Boards in cleaning this water to potable will consequently be severely increased. Impacts on the ecosystems and human and animal health are being ignored. The Department of Health refuses to act and the Departments of Water and the Environment refuse to regulate.

South Africa's Chernobyl situation, around Krugersdorp, Randfontein, Soweto and right out to KwaThema near Brakpan, continues to endanger the lives of all the inhabitants of the area. Radioactivity levels in many areas reflect those at Chernobyl. The only difference is that there are people living in those areas with infants as well. The legacy of over 125 years of mining, polluted rivers and streams plus tonnes of tailings containing arsenic, uranium, cadmium amongst other heavy metals, continues to stand unrectified and abandoned.

Many of the original mining companies have closed down or left the country (Anglo American being a case in point). As result, the Chamber of Mines refuses to entertain any liability for rectification, leaving the tax-payers to foot the bill. The affected communities pay the penalty of increasingly bad health as the polluted air is breathed in and the polluted water is drunk and used to water vegetables, which absorb the heavy metals. The vegetables are then eaten, further compromising the health of the consumers.

On top of this, we have the proposed rollout of another six nuclear power plants along the southern coast of the country. The European Union has promised funding for this (see and Russia has also put a strong proposal on the table (see The focus is on job creation and is highly favoured by the government. The fact that Flamenville and Olkiluoto are yet to be completed, are heavily over budget and the latter has employed mainly Polish workers, seems to have been overlooked completely.

The first site favoured for the new nuclear power station is Thyspunt near Port Elizabeth. This is an area where commercial calamari farming has been developed very successfully. Twenty thousand people are employed in this export income generating industry. However, calamari are temperamental and changes in water temperature could prevent them from continuing to breed, resulting in the loss of jobs. The building of the reactor is expected to create a mere 1186 jobs over 11 years. This does not seem like a viable project if even 5,000 jobs are lost in the calamari farming, which is predicted.

In addition, evacuation is compromised by there being only one road in and out of the area. This resembles the already existing situations at both Koeberg and Pelindaba, where evacuation in the case of an emergency would be extremely difficult. It is acknowledged that, at Koeberg, Eskom has no idea of how many people are in the area. An emergency evacuation plan is not on Koeberg's website and most of the people in the area are not aware of emergency planning, as emergency exercises are not communicated to them.

In the case of Pelindaba, some of the affected community would have to go past the reactor in order to evacuate in the case of an emergency. This raises concerns about whether the NNR is truly regulating the nuclear industry and ensuring that the public is properly protected.

Whilst emergency exercises are held at both installations and the Public Safety Information Forums meet four times a year to report back to the affected parties, we are concerned that these exercises do not score well and errors are given too much time to be remediated. In addition, neither site has ever been subjected to a full Environmental Impact Assessment, as they went into production prior to this being a requirement. This gives environmentalists considerable problems, as we cannot obtain a comprehensive report on the state of the areas and the impacts.

In January this year, all the environmental NGOs and affected parties met in Cape Town to form an alliance to campaign against Nuclear 1, as the project is called. This Alliance is known as Tsunami and has had a further meeting, although most communication is via email. A third meeting is pending. Furthermore, we are alert to the fact that nuclear power is now the most expensive way to generate electricity with coal power second. In a country with the amount of sunlight and wind available to power sustainable solutions, we feel very strongly that this should be the direction in which South Africa should be moving. The lower costs of the latter solutions should also be a valid reason to let go of nuclear and coal enabling South Africa to move into the future and improve the health of our communities.