Op-ed: Nuclear Power’s Threat to Democracy

Without much fanfare, the Department of Energy has propelled the country towards a democratic crisis. In a briefing to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Energy (April 16, 2013), the Department of Energy stated that it would not be reviewing the country’s electricity plan (Integrated Resources Plan 2010) this year, and that the planned six new nuclear reactors were not up for review at any point in the future. The Department’s Director General, Nelisiwe Magubane, indicated that this was the view of Cabinet.

The possible purchase of 9600 MW of new nuclear power represents the most expensive procurement in the history of South Africa and will have long-term impact on the level of South Africa’s national debt.

The day after the Department’s briefing to Parliament, the National Planning Commission released a study, conducted by the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre, into South Africa’s energy future. The headline messages from this study (Towards a New Energy Future, available at http://www.erc.uct.ac.za/) are that there is no need to invest in nuclear power for at least the next 15 to 25 years, that nuclear power is not cost-effective based on the latest cost data, and that South Africa can meet its commitments on carbon emissions without nuclear power. One of the reasons why nuclear is not required now is that the demand for electricity has grown slower than what the Department of Energy predicted back in 2010.

Furthermore, the ANC-endorsed National Development Plan clearly states that there needs to be a review of the planned nuclear expansion, including the costs. Page 176 of the National Development Plan 2030 states, “…further and more in-depth investigations are needed into the implications of greater nuclear energy use, including the potential costs, financing mechanisms, institutional arrangements, safety, environmental costs and benefits, localisation and employment opportunities, and the possibilities of uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication.”

On the surface, this seems like a high stakes dispute within government about South Africa’s energy future. The Department of Energy claims that a nuclear expansion will be formalised in June this year while the National Planning Commission is calling for a pause to consider the facts and conduct further research. However, the issue goes deeper than that, all the way down to our democratic bedrock, the Constitution.

Section 195 and 217 of the Constitution, the Public Finance Management Act, the Money Bills Amendment Act and the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act state that the Republic of South Africa must take all reasonable steps to promote the most efficient, economic, cost-effective, transparent, accountable and competitive use of public funds. The purpose of these legal instruments is to prevent the government of the day from embarking on expenditure detrimental to the body politic, the citizens of this country. They are some of the primary fail-safes we have against a government running amok with our money.

An Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) represents a method determine what the cost-effective, economic and efficient energy choices for the country are. Our current IRP is out of date and the costs for nuclear power in it were low estimates from before the Fukushima disaster. As the National Planning Commission study indicates, the costs for nuclear power today are higher than that what the IRP 2010 estimated and the demand for electricity less. The only logical and legal conclusion to draw is that we must have a new IRP before making any decision on nuclear power.

Yet, this is precisely what Director General Magubane said we would not have this year. Moreover, she indicated that any future IRP would not look at the issue of nuclear power, meaning that come-what-may we are going to build nuclear power stations regardless of the existence of cheaper alternatives.

This is not only contrary to the laws of the Republic, it is fundamentally anti-democratic. The Department of Energy is barreling ahead with scant regard to democratic input from inside and outside government. In fact, what is being asked of the Department is that it pauses and conducts a proper energy planning process before procuring nuclear power.

What is being violated here is the social contract between an elected government and the people: The government is not elected to do as it pleases, we don’t have an elected dictatorship. The government is elected to follow the will of the people as represented by the Constitution, constant public input, and the best available facts. That is representative democracy.

And this is the crisis we are heading towards. The Department of Energy’s steadfast refusal to consider the relevant, latest data on nuclear power and plan accordingly risks launching South Africa into unnecessary debt and subsequent higher debt repayments at the expense of social expenditure. It appears that the Department is aiming to make new nuclear power a fait accompli: hold off on an honest interrogation of the facts until such time a contract has been signed with a nuclear vendor. After which, it can shrug its collective shoulders and leave the financial burden for mere citizens.

This op-ed by Tristen Taylor was first published in The Mercury on April 29, 2013. It is also available on allAfrica.com Tristen Taylor is the Project Coordinator of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone