Opinionista Geoff Davies 14 October 2014

The nuclear deal: Not informed, never mind consulted

Why is our government, a government of the people, we hope, taking the wrong direction to overcome inequality, poverty and unemployment? We need labour intensive development that equips and builds our people. The government’s nuclear plan will bring about further conflict, inequality and social destruction.

The government may only have signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with Russia but the statement that it had already signed such accords with South Korea and the US and will sign similar ones with France, China and Japan shows its clear commitment to nuclear power, in spite of the warning in the National development Plan (NDP) regarding costs.

Why? Why is the government hell-bent on pursuing the nuclear route?

We can only presume it is because of the immense amounts of money involved, and the abundant opportunities for those in power to benefit, both legally and under the counter. Remember the Arms Deal involved R70-billion. Now we are talking at least R1-trillion. And nuclear energy is dangerous stuff so you have to keep it under wraps, hence the need for the carefully prepared secrecy bill. We will not be kept informed, never mind consulted.

Like millions in our country, I rejoiced when the ANC came into power. Finally we had a government that would do the right thing. So why do we see our government pursuing policies that enrich the powerful and further impoverish the poor?

Democracy was the victor in 1994. It wasn’t just that the ANC gained power. The party played a leading role in bringing about that democracy. Not it must defend it. Democracy means human rights and participation and consultation and transparency and even the transfer of power through the ballot. Otherwise we just transfer power from one authoritarian group to another.

Another hard won victory of democracy over the ages is the tenet of  “no taxation without representation”. The department of energy has acknowledged that we – the people of South African – will have to pay for this R1-trillion ‘investment’. Given that nuclear power construction invariably doubles in time and costs, we will be lucky if it is as little as R1-trillion.

The ANC might have won a majority of seats in parliament but in no way did we authorise them to indebt us to the Russians – or whoever – for the next 60 years, long after President Jacob Zuma is dead and buried. What a horrendous legacy to leave us with. The president is meant to serve his country, not enslave it in debt.

The Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute’s fundamental question is why the government put forward nuclear as the right and best use of scarce resources in our young democracy, when so many better alternatives are available. We’ve have never had an opportunity to engage with government, nor have we had the courtesy of a reply, even when we hand-delivered letters to the Presidency.

Three years ago a statement was published that quoted the then director general of the energy department, Nelisiwa Magubane, who said: “If the government wants nuclear, I will make sure they get it”.

A meeting of faith leaders early last year resolved to approach government urgently to express our deep socio-economic concerns regarding nuclear energy. Together with SAFCEI’s letters, statements from the KwaZulu-Natal Inter-Religious Council, signed by Cardinal Napier, and the WC Religious Leaders Forum were resent to the president and the deputy president, who was chair of the National Nuclear Co-ordinating Committee until Zuma took it over.

This move by Zuma ended the promise of a meeting with the DP whose office admitted that the president and government ministers attended nuclear events but had not allowed the same consultation with civil society.

We thought we might get a hearing at a parliamentary energy portfolio meeting. We were inflicted with two hours of what is best described as nuclear propaganda by the department and NECSA, which told us nothing new but which included the old untruths, such as “only coal and nuclear can provide base load electricity”, “nuclear energy will employ thousands” and “nuclear energy will bring electricity to all the people of South Africa”. Nonsense. Centralised electricity generation cannot reach the two million rural households scattered across our country. Only decentralised renewable energy (RE) can do that.

After the presentations the chairman announced that the many members of civil society in attendance had three minutes each to comment. When challenged he asked if we really expected the portfolio committee to change government policy.

We then heard that the government’s response had been to budget R300 million to convince the ignorant, fearful SA public that nuclear energy is quite safe.

So, we ask, where are democracy, transparency, and accountability in our new democracy? Why are we so concerned?

The nuclear route is taking us in the completely wrong direction democratically, socially, financially and environmentally.

Our urgent priority is to overcome inequality and poverty. To do this we must train, equip and capacitate our people. As Bongani Coka, chief executive of Productivity SA, recently wrote, “A country may have many positive elements – mineral wealth, diverse natural and cultural assets, but its most enduring strength will be its people… The upliftment in the skills and education levels of our people is critical… Our people will ultimately drive the development of our economy.”

I continue to be amazed that this government of the people thinks it more important to spend the equivalent of our national income on nuclear energy rather than training, developing and building our people and communities. The government can’t be blind to the more than 2,000 service delivery protests annually, with over 200 being seriously violent. Protestors do not see the Zuma government serving the people but enriching themselves. The decisions to pursue nuclear power and fracking are proof of this. Surely responding to the needs of the people is a far greater priority?

Nuclear power will entrench inequality and benefit those in power and the already rich. We have the highest levels of inequality in the world and our horrendous crime and violence is a consequence of this. The obvious answer is decentralised renewable energy that empowers local communities, and can employ thousands. Nuclear will employ a handful of specialists, some of whom will be imported at great cost.

We need low carbon labour intensive development that will employ the millions of young people who leave school without matric and skills. It can be done, but not by putting all out wealth into high energy, high capital projects that benefit the capital investors and do people out of jobs.

Financially, nuclear simply does not make sense. We are already risking our credit rating over Medupi coal power station. We, the public will have to pay for the nuclear development. We know both coal and uranium are increasing in cost and that nuclear power stations are notorious in their overruns in time and cost.

Contrast that with renewable energy that will be paid for by private investors (not the state), can be up and running within two years, can be decentralised, is reducing in costs and has no escalating fuel costs. In one year, 2011, Italy installed 9.6 GWs of rooftop photovoltaics. Why bother with nuclear which will take at least 10 years before we benefit? On top of that, Grand Inga hydro could provide all the electricity we need.

Environmentally, it is increasingly clear that to confront climate injustice, we have to follow the renewable energy route. We have the best solar and wind resources in the world, unlike the UK, so why not utilise them to the full extent?

In April this year, the then Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and the then finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, invited religious leaders to meet in Pretoria. The purpose was to encourage the faith communities to join in celebrating 20 years of democracy. We were shown excellent presentations of the advances we have made over the past 20 years. We rejoiced over this.

I then took the opportunity of reminding the deputy president that we had been scheduled to meet with him over the nuclear issue and said that unless the government consulted civil society over nuclear and fracking, they would bring about the same conflict situation as was already being experienced over e-tolling.

The faith communities asked Nazir Alli in 2004 to consult regarding e tolling. Instead, Sanral pressed ahead with the Wild Coast N2, the Winelands N2 and e-tolling.

Motlanthe, summing up the meeting, told the Gordhan meeting should be arranged after elections to discuss the issues with civil society and faith communities. To date nothing further has transpired.

I need to say that history has shown that when secular authorities disregard the ethical and moral call of faith communities for justice and fairness, the consequences are dire. We are in this position now. If Zuma does not place the well-being of people and planet above the immoral pursuit of private gain, conflict and strife will get totally out of hand. Are we not already in a perilous state, socially, financially and environmentally?

South Africa was one of the few instances in human history when those in power shared before an all-out conflagration and conflict.  We amazed the world with our relatively peaceful transition to democracy. May this government do the same, and heed the call of concerned citizens and faith communities to overcome inequality, seeking economic justice and following an energy course that benefits and empowers the people, without destroying the future well-being of people and the planet, or bankrupting this young democracy. DM

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