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'False solutions' to climate and energy crises, 26 February

Centre for Civil Society Workshop - all welcome
Speakers: Baruti Amisi, Gerard Boyce and Patrick Bond
Date: Thursday 26 February 2015
Time: 12:30-15:00 (new time - extended for more analysis)
Venue: CCS Seminar Room 602, 6th Floor, MTB Tower, Howard College

South African political leaders, energy policy elites and big mining and smelting corporations appear desperate to acquire two massive new energy sources: nuclear and hydro-power. In each case, claims are regularly made as to their safety, reliability and low-emissions features. For nuclear energy, the R1 trillion estimated cost, the secretive acquisition agreements (including no supplier liability in the case of nuclear accident) and more recently-revealed nuclear accidents - a R12.5 billion repair incident at South Africa's Koeberg and another radioactive water leak at Fukushima - are causing social anxiety. But so far unexplored is the geopolitical role that nuclear energy appears likely to play in the region. Likewise, the regional implications of the world's biggest dam - the 42 000 MegaWatt Inga on the Congo River - are immense. So too are the dam's adverse implications for the Democratic Republic of the Congo's severe Resource Curse. Government repeatedly claims that together, nuclear and mega-hydro can supply nearly 20 000 MegaWatts - two thirds of South Africa's current consumption - to South Africa by around 2025, carbon-free. The workshop will assess the nature of these claims, especially debating evidence that nuclear and mega-hydro energy are 'false solutions' in many regards. At a time South Africa stands extremely exposed on both energy and climate fronts, it is critical to understand more about the claims, realities and options ahead.

A Congolese refugee, Amisi recently completed his doctoral thesis on the Inga Hydropower Projects at CCS, and in early March he will present his research at the University of Illinois Power Africa Conference. Boyce is a UKZN PhD student in economics. Bond is CCS director and authored the book Politics of Climate Justice.

The DRC, underdevelopment and communities affected by the Inga Hydropower Projects
Amisi Baruti

The original idea of generating hydroelectricity from the Inga Falls to electrify the Bas Congo and its neighbouring provinces dates back to 1885. This thought was reinforced by the need for industrialisation of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Africa in the late 1950s. It subsequently materialised, with other mega development projects, from 1965 onward under the Mobutu Regime for various reasons. The Inga Hydropower Projects (IHP) occur, through consecutive hydropower dams, as the much needed solution to poor electrification of DRC and Africa; and the increasing demand for electricity in the Southern Europe and the Middle East. Yet, in 2009 only 11.1% of DRC had access to electricity. This statistic is far below the average 30% of other Sub-Sahara countries during the same year. Grand Inga (Inga 4) will cost at least 80 billion US$ at foundation phase and attract property developers as well as related entrepreneurs from around the world. What is the impact of Inga 1 and Inga 2 on African households and the industrialisation of the continent? Would further developments of the IHPs make any difference to the needs of the DRC and Africa? How could the Power Africa Project respond to the challenges which undermine the success of mega development projects and subsequent development of Africa in order to achieve its strategic objectives?

Nuclear endgame and South Africa's geopolitical calculus
Gerard Boyce

In what is set to become South Africa’s largest public works project by far, the South African government plans to rapidly expand nuclear energy capacity by going ahead with a controversial plan to commission and build at least six additional nuclear reactors. Government has taken this decision in the face of mounting concerns about the affordability of this project and the fairness of the process that will be followed when awarding this tender. This growing opposition, when coupled with low levels of public knowledge of the pros and cons of nuclear power, makes it difficult to comprehend the government’s rationale for undertaking this project, especially the economic rationale for doing so. In contrast, the decision to expand nuclear energy output makes imminent sense if viewed within the context of SA’s geopolitical ambitions. In particular, it is argued that this decision can best be explained in terms of South Africa’s sub-imperialistic designs in sub-Saharan Africa and its desire to be considered Africa’s representative in world affairs.

Keep South Africa’s lights on with renewable energy – or irradiate a darkened nation?
Patrick Bond, Counterpunch 16 February 2015

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.

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