In April, this year, the world will remember the disaster at Chernobyl 30 years ago. It was the biggest nuclear disaster in history, with tragic effects for the people and the environment of the area around Chernobyl. The story should be well known to most adults. It has, in many ways, defined nuclear energy policy in the world since then. The Chernobyl disaster was, also, a catalytic event in the opening up, and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
Photo: Aerial view of the damaged core on 3 May 1986. Roof of the turbine hall is damaged (image center). Roof of the adjacent reactor 3 (image lower left) shows minor fire damage. (Wikimedia Commons)
As we enter our own new nuclear age – the first one was started under the National Party – South Africans may want to pause and reflect on some of the causes of the Chernobyl disaster. We may want to do so without getting carried away, but also avoid believing that it cannot happen here. As it goes, our problems may already have started….
The Cabinet decision to go ahead with the procurement programme to provide South Africa with 9.6GW of nuclear power is, arguably, the boldest statement that the government has made about the country’s future. It might, also, be the most ill-conceived construction project of the democratic era. Herein lies the danger for the country. Forget, for a moment, the human and environmental impact of nuclear power, as opposed to coal or renewables, and consider two vital problems that have beset almost all nuclear builds around the world: the secrecy and lies that mark nuclear-build projects from their inception, and the extremely high-levels of skills that are required to build power-stations (and eventually operate them).
Now add to this some of the elements behind the façades of our own Potemkin Village; the lack of skills, low productivity, the political influence of malicious labour and political movements, criminal activities, especially materials theft, political intervention in corporate affairs and above all, the almost complete lack of accountability by government, and that great, almost uniquely South African tradition of exceptionalism – which deserves a special mention.
There is powerful and unshakable belief among our political elite that we are a unique people. This meme is built upon the beliefs that we fought a unique battle against a unique villain and that we are, historically, the only people who have suffered injustice; indeed, we can barely get ourselves to grieve over the suffering of others in Syria, Iraq, France, Afghanistan, England or Myanmar. Because of this, rather spurious set of beliefs we have a self-image of uniqueness and exceptionalism.
Because of this self-image we will not listen, or learn from the mistakes of countries that have long and deep experience on matters of politics and governance. This exceptionalism, coupled with the ANC’s belief in its own primacy over the interests of the country, can lead us to disaster in our new nuclear age. It becomes important, therefore, that the public become vigilant, and the news media, in particular, continue to investigate the nuclear-build project. The public must, also, prepare for a propaganda surge from the putative nuclear village that will dominate all aspects of knowledge production in our new nuclear age. In this new era, truth and knowledge and information will be the first casualties.
Almost without fail, every state that has embarked on a nuclear energy build has sought to ring-fence information. Justification for this has always rested on notions of national security, and found expression in an insidious censorship across sectors, especially in the media and academia. An independent media will have to remain ahead of insidious attempts to censor information, and the violation of constitutional freedoms. Besides direct state restrictions, withholding information and an imbalance between free speech and national security there is, also, the danger of self-censorship by journalists associated with the nuclear village, and those blindly loyal to the political elite.
Before long, a nuclear village will start taking shape. This village will comprise of pro-nuclear scientists, academics, business people and journalists. In Japan, the “nuclear village” is the term commonly used to refer to the institutional and individual pro-nuclear advocates who comprise the utilities, nuclear vendors, bureaucracy, parliament, the financial sector, media and academia. This nuclear village flexed its intellectual and financial power after the Fukushima disaster, and effectively silenced any criticism of nuclear power and its dangers to society and the environment. Once the nuclear village is more firmly established, the only “news” and research that will prevail will be for the protection of state and corporate interests in the nuclear project.
In some ways South Africa’s problems may have already started. As it goes, there is very little scrutiny of communications and whatever agreements, however tentative they may have been, in the time between when the “deal” struck with Russia, early last year – a $10billion contract issued to Russian atomic agency, Rustom – and the Cabinet opening up the process for tender last month. It was reported, last August, that South Africa signed “non-binding inter-government agreements for nuclear power support from several countries, including France, China and South Korea. With all these agreements mushrooming – whether they are binding, non-binding or tentative – chances of secrecy and lies increase. It is difficult to shake the belief that the final contract will go to the party that provides the largest amounts of cash under the table. Given the high levels of corruption and graft in South Africa, transparency may be one way to miminise the exchange of “lunch money”, as our police service may refer to during a random stop in the middle of the night.
It should be made clear; this is not an attempt to decide on who should get the contract. For now, it also is not a discussion on the health and environmental hazards, although these are important discussions. It has to do with the public being fully aware, along the procurement and value chains, of how and to whom money is given. If it does come together, the nuclear-build programme will probably be the biggest single investment made by the state in the democratic era. South Africans need to know what the costs are (now), what they will be (as the process continues), and what the delivery costs will be just before electricity goes on stream. We also need to know where power plants will be built, why they will be built in particular areas, and whether local communities have had a say in building a nuclear plant near their homes and sources of water. Water is a key feature (for cooling) and a future battle for nuclear power generation – especially in a country that is water-scarce. These are some of the issues that need to be discussed, and where the press need to be vigilant.
We know from nuclear energy projects elsewhere from Israel to France, and from Russia (Subscription Required) to Japan, that nuclear projects are shrouded in secrecy and lies from the point of inception through the unfortunate instances of accidents, such as those that occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima. To understand the secrecy and the drain on public funds during the policy and implementation stage, France is a good case.
The French generate at least 75% of their electricity from 58 nuclear plants around the country. The French model is, therefore, seductive (notwithstanding the woe within the industry) because the country produces a substantial amount energy and has almost the lowest cost electricity in Europe. France also has an extremely low level of per capita CO2 emissions from electricity generation, since over 90% of its electricity is nuclear or hydro. What is important in the French case – which is by no means the only example – is that the entire process of construction (and the industry as a whole) has been marked by secrecy and misinformation, significant financial overruns and a remarkable sequestration of state policy from democratic public debate.
In France, and in Japan, the policy debate is driven and steered by a dogmatically pro-nuclear group of people, a technocratic elite similar to the nuclear village referred to above, and sequestered from public scrutiny. This is strengthened by state propaganda which convinces the public that nuclear technology is a highly specialised domain, and has to, therefore, be left to people with the right educational background. This brings us to the home truths about South Africa’s lack of skills and accountability.
One of the main lessons we have learned about politics and government in the democratic era is that skills, education, professional conduct and ethics and acumen are not requirements for appointment to some of the country’s most important institutions. We have to start by accepting that have very few people with critical, cutting edge and world-class technical or vocational skills in South Africa. One outcome of this lack of skills, is that infrastructure maintenance has fallen behind schedule, and new projects are taking longer than planned. About the country’s growing shortage of engineering graduates, Moneyweb reported that of the 511,564 enrolments in engineering disciplines from 1998 to 2010, only 14% graduated.
“Government has ambitious, trillion-rand infrastructure plans for the next decade, but unintentionally, these are showing up an already desperate lack of skills in the country, which throws doubt on its ability to carry its plans forward. Of local [construction] companies, 74%, are struggling to fill engineering roles, according to the 2012 Infrastructure Sector Research Survey, by executive search firm Landelahni Business Leaders Amrop SA,” reported Moneyweb.
There is, moreover, an attitude that makes this lack of skills profoundly dangerous; homologous with the self-image of exceptionalism explained above, there is the laughable belief that no special skills are required for certain highly specialised tasks. Commercial airline pilots are dismissed as “glorified bus drivers”, corporate executive officers believe that birthright empowers them to head multi-billion rand state enterprises – and not formal education or business acumen, and political intervention manipulates management of public utilities, which can have disastrous effects for the management and operation of nuclear power stations.
It is worth bearing in mind that among the causes of the Chernobyl disaster was a combination of ideological positioning (the Soviet Union did everything possible to seem different from the USA); political appointments (mainly party loyalists were placed in senior positions); human error, because of a lack of skills at the operation level, and poor reporting because of fears that mistakes will be severely punished by Moscow. There is sufficient evidence to fear that these elements lie behind the false fronts of Potemkin Village South Africa.
We know, by now, that the ruling party and its followers have difficulty changing from what they were in the 1980s, a weakened liberation movement seeped in Cold War angst and neurosis, to an early 21st century political party that has been elected to govern a vibrant constitutional democracy that thrives on the free exchange of information. We also know that there have been very few admissions of responsibility or acknowledgement of accountability for the myriad of things that beset South Africa. The country’s second nuclear age will be all of our doing; when things start going wrong, as they will, we have none to blame but ourselves.
It is important, therefore that a public education project is started, probably through the independent media, because the public broadcaster and a growing number of newspapers and journalists have been siding with the state-party nexus. Over the coming months, there will probably be renewed focus on the disaster at Chernobyl three decades ago. Believing that it cannot happen here will be our first mistake. DM
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.