Our Burning Planet


Five years after the illegal nuclear deal was nuked, we are still struggling with a broken energy system

Five years after the illegal nuclear deal was nuked, we are still struggling with a broken energy system
A roadsign for the Koeberg nuclear power station, operated by Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd, in Cape Town. (Photo: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The South African government’s current approach to energy production is our biggest barrier to a just transition and it seems as though we are deliberately choosing fossil fuels and nuclear, while implementing renewables at a snail’s pace.

The month of April was not only significant to South Africa as Freedom Month, but was also the month in which Earthlife Africa Johannesburg and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei) commemorated the court victory that exposed the severity of the corruption within the state and halted government’s “illegal and unconstitutional” R1-trillion nuclear energy deal with Russia.

As far as we are concerned, 26 April 2017 is one of the most important days in our country’s post-apartheid history – at the time, economists predicted that the deal would bankrupt the country. Since then, the Zondo Commission has exposed even more, but that is an Op-Ed for another day.

Apart from revealing the depths of the rot within government and how far members of the state were willing to go to dupe the public, this was also the start of an intense battle which continues to rage between public interests versus those of government and corporate to protect citizens’ right to be consulted on huge capital spends, especially in energy procurement that may affect them.

Fast forward to 2022: the world braces for the intensifying impacts of climate change – the recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal are clear evidence of the reality of the escalating climate emergency. Yet, South Africa is still saddled with a government that pushes a climate-blind energy agenda onto its people, and often is attempting to do so without meaningful consultation. Our entire society should be poised to participate in progressing the country towards a just transition, yet we still see our government choose unsuitable and unrealistic energy options which will likely perpetuate and worsen inequality and energy poverty, and which do not adequately address the climate crises.

A publication released at COP26 in December 2021, Neither Climate Nor Jobs: Nuclear Myths About the Just Transition, argues that nuclear will be detrimental to our “collective capacity to transform our energy systems in a way that leaves no one behind”.

While nuclear power operations do not have as large a carbon footprint as coal, gas and oil, there are numerous other issues with this outdated and largely failed technology that must be considered, that make nuclear power utterly unsuitable for South Africa’s energy needs in our current reality. Comparatively, the carbon footprint of nuclear power is estimated to be at least two to four times more than that of renewables.

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There are a number of reasons that nuclear energy is NOT a solution to the climate emergency and why it should not be part of the just transition. First, South Africa needs development that is pro-poor, and basic services need to be provided that are affordable to all. This means that the country’s energy plans should work to reduce the gaps in inequality, with the people – not industry nor the economy nor profits – at the centre of its plans.

Sadly, the government’s current approach to energy production is our country’s biggest barrier to a just transition and it seems as though we are deliberately choosing fossil fuels and nuclear, while implementing renewables at a snail’s pace.

Investing in nuclear energy requires huge capital investment – which could have an impact on public spending on social services – while the centralised and costly nature of its production will do little to reduce the widespread energy poverty in the country. When considering the urgent need for poverty-alleviating approaches to development and energy production, the fact that renewables create more jobs (with a wider variety and in more flexible locations) and can be installed in a matter of months, provides more compelling arguments against nuclear.

Furthermore, as climate change takes root and weather conditions become more extreme, a just transition will require a flexible and decentralised electricity supply for greater stability. Without even considering nuclear power stations’ poor installation and cost performance globally, we need only look at South Africa’s only existing nuclear power station at Koeberg to know that nuclear has not proven to be particularly reliable over the past 18 months.

Ongoing issues at the nuclear power station are a significant part of the reason that citizens have been plunged into darkness once again. We must recognise Koeberg’s deteriorating performance while noting the ongoing governance issues at Eskom and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.

Another reason that nuclear energy is not fit for purpose for our current and future energy needs is the outdated argument of the necessity of baseload energy, which completely ignores the strides made in modern technology. This type of centralised power often takes very long to come online and will do little to alleviate the energy poverty in the country. Even in the best-case scenario, it would be at least another decade before we are likely to get any electricity from a new power plant.

Just the fact that we need to keep temperatures below 1.5°C by 2030 means that even if we did go the nuclear route, we would be far too late to mitigate carbon emissions in any meaningful way. Yet, our government insists on wasting time pursuing nuclear, while utility-scale renewable energy projects could be ready in less than half the time. 

South Africa is at a crossroads. Are we really willing to continue making the mistakes of the past? When will the government finally look to local communities as partners in development to ensure that its actions are truly as pro-poor as its policies claim to be? The longer we take to pivot our efforts toward the just transition, the more opportunities to create more equity for our citizens are being lost. We cannot simply sit idly by while the government makes decisions that are not in our best interest.

It is important, at this point, to remind South Africans that it was as a result of a national effort by many civil society organisations, academics and concerned citizens that we were able to stop then-President Jacob Zuma’s illegal nuclear deal five years ago, sparing us from the effects of the bankruptcy that would have ensued.

At a time when the divisions in our society were becoming decidedly evident, it was wonderful to be part of such a unifying campaign with people from all walks of life. From eco-justice NGOs to community-based organisations, right down to the ordinary person on the street, most South Africans knew we had to stand together or risk losing our country.

Even in the past few months, as Shell threatened to destroy our Wild Coast, we again saw the people stand up for each others’ right to be recognised and heard. So, on this fifth anniversary of the court case that spared our nation and our democracy, here’s to you South Africa! Together we can achieve more. Now we only need our government to believe in us, too. OBP/DM

Francesca de Gasparis is Executive Director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) and Makoma Lekalakala is Director of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg.

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Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anesh Govender says:

    And yet the government is hurtling towards Karpowerships to provide energy. We have the best cheapest natural energy sources yet govt ignores this.

  • Hari Seldon says:

    This assertion needs to be elaborated more – what is the current best evidence for this? Is there any example globally of an area the size of South Africa being able to rely on renewables for baseload and being able to do this RELIABLY? Blackouts in California for instance portend problems with relying on renewables for baseload. I sense the argument is a lot more nuanced.

    The assertion you made is ” outdated argument of the necessity of baseload energy, which completely ignores the strides made in modern technology”

  • Dave Martin says:

    It should be a requirement that articles written about technical issues like electricity supply should be checked by an engineer for accuracy prior to publication. There are too many articles about SA’s biggest problem – reliable electricity supply – where the authors clearly do not understand the basics of the problem.

    To say that that renewable energy is the cheapest energy source without addressing the intermittency issue and the costs associated with mitigating intermittency borders on misinformation.

    The Daily Maverick really needs to up its game. This is probably the biggest economic challenge our country faces and yet we read endless articles written by passionate activists with good intentions but very poor technical understanding.

    South Africa has 4 windless nights per year. The first thing proponents of a “renewable-only” solution must do is explain what they think happens on those nights. How many GWh of batteries would be required? At what cost?

    Tesla produced about 4GWh of grid scale batteries last year. Even if we bought ALL those expensive batteries (outbidding the USA, Europe and China) those batteries would run South Africa for just 9 minutes.

    • Mike Monson says:

      The rapid advances in battery technology portend a more cost effective and higher capacity future solution although these are still to be proven. Nevertheless, the science is encouraging enough to attract significant investment. Add to these likely advances the facts that more localised energy production is much more efficient than centralised generation where massive amounts of energy are lost during transmission and you get a different picture.
      On top of this, read the study produced by Stellenbosch university on the capacity for wind power from turbines located on the reefs off the Southern and Western Cape coast and you will realise that your 4 wind free days is not a factor at all.
      The developed economies are not recklessly abandoning fossil fuels in spite of the difficulties in transition, they really do know what they are doing. The criminal Ukraine war has just exasperated the situation further so we can expect much greater urgency in the transitions.
      In South Africa the fossil fuel based generating capacity has already been destroyed by corruption and it would be wise not to miss the golden opportunity to replace the destroyed capacity with a combination of renewables that can undoubtedly provide a distributed base load effect using already proven technologies.

    • Robin Hayes says:

      I have to concur with Dave Martin and add to the ignorance that we commonly see surrounding the energy question by the passionate but non-technical writers.
      The comment made about nuclear power and Koeberg, in particular, are disinformation and untrue.
      There are many countries around the world that are pursuing nuclear power due to its inherent advantages. Renewables as we know them now, cant provide baseline power and there are other things to consider. One 3MW wind turbine can take up to 5t of copper in its construction which means excavating 5 000t of copper-bearing ore! Also, some solar panels use a particularly nasty greenhouse gas – man-made nitrogen trifluoride – in their manufacture.
      There’s nothing ‘green’ or sustainable about either of these processes!

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