Nuclear power, dirty play

An audacious recent appointment by South Africa’s Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has inadvertently drawn closer public scrutiny to the South African nuclear industry—infamous for its “secrecy, lies and cover-ups” much of which has been quietly brewing below the radar.

Particularly apropos the long-planned and 11-year overdue proposed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project at Koeberg Power Station in the Cape. And over which the ‘objective’ National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) is supposed to preside in the public interest, ensuring safety at all levels and overseeing licensing applications. Ex-minister of the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs’ (DME) Mlambo-Ngcuka’s unstrategic move made a mockery of her own regulatory process and more than a few million anti-nuclear supporters in February this year when she brazenly appointed nuclear physicist Maurice Magugumela as CEO of the NNR – whose previous job was as PBMR Ltd’s Safety and Licensing manager. In effect, this supreme conflict of interests means that PBMR Ltd has been granted the privilege of licensing itself.

We are told by our government heavyweights that nuclear technology and the PBMR are the South African answer to future power needs. But is the amount of R11,5 billion being spent on and up to the demo phase alone planned for 2007 justifiable? Especially considering the renewable energy options available such as tidal, wind and solar that carry no human and environmental hazards and have no waste disposal issues attached. Not to mention the fact it takes 18 operational years before nuclear power starts delivering more power than it consumes.

Economist Steve Thomas, a senior research fellow at London’s University of Greenwich was one of 15 international experts invited by the DME in 2001 to look at all aspects of the PBMR feasibility. He was required to sign papers saying he would not ‘disclose any parts of his report or any information heard’. Nor has the report ever been made public for comment.

“I argued such a risky project should not be undertaken using South African public money. Since then costs have escalated several fold, the project is now 10 years later, no international buyers are in prospect and no foreign investors are yet committed to fund the next, much more expensive phase. Everything that has happened since demonstrates the riskiness of this venture, yet the PBMR programme has support at the highest levels of South African government which seems hard to understand”.
Currently, two South African parastatals are investors in the PBMR – Eskom, which is in the process of ‘diluting’ its shares and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), along with the only foreign investor, British Nuclear Fuels (BNF). They, however, are apparently on the brink of bankrupty due to a multi-million rand bill from the British government ‘to clean up a radioactive mess’ in that country and have asked the British government for a multi-billion pound bail out. American Exelon withdrew its support for ‘ economic’ reasons in 2003.

Convenor of the Koeberg Alert Alliance Michael Kantey said the entire process thus far has been similar to the arms deal. “Contracts have already been handed out by PBMR for the making of gas turbines and it’s the same in the case of the demo units – they have contracted Murray and Roberts for structural engineering and advertised positions in the Sunday Times for various professionals already”.

While the South African taxpayer will largely bear the brunt of this illogical plan of action, this is only the start. PBMR is preparing to build 24 reactors for potential local use and up to 200 for potential export, but no orders have been placed. It’s not for nothing critics call this project a ‘white elephant’.

Clearly PBMR Ltd convinced cabinet of their much-talked about ability to attract foreign buyers, judging from the recent financial injection of R500 million late last year, which mysteriously jumped up another R100 million when the budget came through in February from Trevor Manuel. It couldn’t have taken too much, considering Reuel Khoza’s probable involvement in that string-pulling exercise. A powerful man with fingers in many pies, he is chairman of Eskom and government advisor on nuclear issues. And the plot thickens when you realise he also set up AKA Capital, owned and controlled by CNI (Co Ordinated Network Investments, which he also founded) as the BEE partner in IST – the company developing the PBMR technology and who were awarded the enormous R260 million contract. Khoza’s commercial interest made a mind-boggling R80 million in shares when IST delisted last year.

The design of the reactors is a new one and remains untested, the DME have yet to deliver a long overdue waste disposal policy and there are major issues around technical safety and emergency planning. But despite this: “The South African nuclear industry players – essentially a Mafia of the same people – have gone against the will of South Africans and are defiantly going ahead with the PBMR programme”, said Kantey.

Giving the South African public something else to worry about, concerned organisations such as the Koeberg Alert Alliance, the environmental justice group Earthlife Africa and countless others may soon see themselves slapped with new legislation designed to ‘gag groups like this’. Mlambo-Ngcuka purportedly made the threat ‘so we don’t scare people unnecessarily’, she said, after the Pelindaba incident. An unprotected nuclear radiation source was whistle-blown by Earthlife Africa there in April this year.

Some interest groups believe Mlambo-Ngcuka’s reaction to be a ‘psychological, knee-jerk reaction’ and have a ‘wait and see attitude’, but others believe legislation will silently be pushed through on this later in the year. Opposing groups are primarily relied on by the public to counter and challenge the agendas of government, parastatals and private corporations who act against public interest. This, therefore, does not bode well for the future and reeks of a return to the dark past where freedom of speech was a far-off dream. Even worse: parliamentary members themselves who regularly request more ‘balanced’ information on nuclear technology are apparently only force fed ‘experts’ who advocate the technology.

Arrogance and political clout go hand-in-hand, it seems. ‘Uranium Road’ author, Dr. David Fig, an independent environmental policy analyst believes it is in the public interest to ‘strenuously contest’ Mlambo-Ngcuka’s appointment of Magugumela. “This industry doesn’t promote democratic decision-making, all independent assessments of the PBMR have been supressed and anything unfavourable removed from reports. It is unfortunate that parliament has been susceptible to the pleading of the nuclear industry, with its culture of secrecy, cover ups and past involvement in weapons proliferation, going back to apartheid times”.
While secret uranium sales for foreign bomb programmes and bomb-making may have died, other things stay the same. The Eskom culture, for one, with its small community of scientists who are still very much in our midst. Seven of the 11 ‘independent’ consultants on the PBMR environmental study in 2001 actually turned out to be ex-Eskom employees.

But all hope’s not lost. On January 26 this year Earthlife Africa won an important judgement against the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) and its-then Director General, Chippy Olver, concerning the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the PBMR in 2001.

It was found that the DG should consider Earthlife submissions before making a decision on the mini-reactor and should also allow them and the public to make comment on all information made available. As one annonymous legal representative familiar with the case said: ‘There are no authorisations any more to build the PBMR, so what is the industry spending more money on when they’ve lost?’

And therein lies the rub. Underhanded activities continue along with public speculation over the conspiratorial nature of the beast. If, as some claim, this dogged approach is partially about face-saving and delivery over long-standing promises that industry players are now forced to follow through with, the South African public are literally much the poorer for it.
Eskom, however, looks to become even richer as they will be ‘diluting’ their shares in PBMR. “The decision is that Eskom needs to ‘dilute’ out of the PBMR development and will not be investing further, although the technology will belong to the company”, said communications manager Tom Ferreira, who flatly denies public health is at risk.

But once again the power giant is under fire. Refusing to give Earthlife sight of boardroom minutes reflecting PBMR-related discussion, Eskom is being taken to court later this year in order to obtain access to that information.

On seeing just a few faces at a meeting last year Mlambo-Ngcuka said to Kantey: “If you want to persuade government to turn away from this technology, you’ll need to put people on the street in numbers to convince us”. Maybe we need to take some lessons from our homeless neighbours and European counterparts – while its seems as if the former are obtaining partial delivery on their housing needs due to frequent mass protests, the latter have never had a problem with taking any issue to the streets. Let’s wake up and smell the carbon smoke. The powers want numbers – let’s give it to them.

Note: By the time of going to press and after several requests, the DME/ Deputy President Mlambo-Ngcuka had still not responded to questions.