Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant on the outskirts of Cape Town.

During a fact-finding mission to South Africa in August last year, Marcos Orellana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, called on the South African government to do more to overcome the ‘crude legacy of pre-1994 environmental racism’ that is still so apparent in South Africa. The term ‘environmental racism’ refers to the practise whereby the distribution of environmental harms deliberately and disproportionately falls onto low-income groups and along racial lines. It is a form of racialised ‘spatial injustice’.

The ongoing legacy of the apartheid government’s wholesale practise of environmental racism is, indeed, starkly obvious in present day South Africa. To this day, the vast majority of people who live near waste dumps (industrial and residential), petrochemicals hubs, and other polluting industries, or in other unhealthy or unsuitable locations, are from low-income households and are ‘black’. As the apartheid regime’s hideous ‘logic’ valued ‘white’ lives way above ‘black’ lives, so it made perfect sense to keep environmental harms as far away from ‘white’ people as possible.

One such serious environmental harm that was kept away from ‘white’ people at the cost of ‘black’ people was that posed by nuclear waste. In 1986, the Atomic Energy Agency (now known as the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa – NNR) opened the South African National Radioactive Waste Management Facility at Vaalputs in the Northern Cape (more honestly described as a dump for nuclear waste). The site was designed to accept low and medium-level waste from Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in Cape Town which began operating in 1984. Low-level waste is made up of contaminated items such as clothing or tools, whereas intermediate-level waste is made up of more radioactive items such as resins and filters. Both categories of waste should become ‘safe’ within 50 years.

According to official documentation from the era, the site was selected because it met with the geological and hydrological requirements of a nuclear waste site as defined in 1986. It also met with the racist needs of the apartheid state. Planners drew 50km circles around towns where white people lived in remote parts of South Africa until they found an area that excluded white homes but met with the other site requirements. That ‘black’ people lived as close as 24km away in Leliefontein was not important. As one resident of Leliefontein remarked in 1991, ‘for the Atomic Energy Commission, our people didn’t seem to exist’.

This casual disregard for anyone who was not white must be contextualised within the wider colonial mythmaking around ‘empty lands’, whereby colonial authorities designated vast tracks of the world ‘empty’, and therefore available for exploitation, because they were either sparsely populated or were populated by ‘black’ people. In terms of nuclear weapons testing and nuclear power more specifically, this relationship between government and exploited people is characterised as Nuclear Colonialism, sometimes also referred to as ‘Nuclear Racism’.

Nuclear Colonialism refers to a system where governments and corporations disproportionality target indigenous people and the land they live on to support nuclear industries. This form of colonialism has been experienced in, among other places, the United States, Algeria, Australia, and in the Pacific Islands. To this list we must add Vaalputs. No one asked people living in the area whether they wanted dangerous nuclear waste (the site has twice had its operating licence suspended by the NNR. In 1997, drums were found to have been leaking for several years, while radioactive dose limits were exceeded in 2012) near their homes and water supplies, it was imposed on them by a dictatorial state.

To this day, despite its apartheid past, the site is still used for Koeberg’s low and medium-level waste. If the NNR approves extending the lifetime of Koeberg for another 20 years past is original lifetime, another 20 years of waste will make its way to Vaalputs from Koeberg. In fact, the present government is intent on expanding greatly Vaalputs as it has plans to build a Centralised Interim Storage Facility at the site to accept high-level waste from Koeberg. High-level waste, which is predominantly made up of spent fuel rods from the reactor contain radioactive elements that remain lethal for anything from 300 years (cesium-137, strontium-90) to hundreds of thousands of years (plutonium-239). High-level waste accounts for 95% of all radioactivity in waste produced by a nuclear power station. Ultimately, the government wants to build a Deep Geological Repository at Vaalputs to store all the high-level waste produced by Koeberg and from any new nuclear power stations built in coming years.

Despite being a case of Nuclear Colonialism perpetrated by the apartheid state, the government seems quite happy to turn Vaalputs into a ‘Sacrifice Zone’. ‘Sacrifice Zones’, which are classic manifestations of environmental racism, are places where the health of people and landscapes are brutally ‘sacrificed’ for the economic gains and prosperity of others who live elsewhere. By continuing to use Vaalputs, the government is, rather than overcoming the ‘crude legacy of pre-1994 environmental racism’ actually extending this particular example of apartheid’s environmental racism.

In the interests of those living around Vaalputs, and in the wider interests of all South African’s, the government’s plans to extend the life of Koeberg and build 2500MW of new nuclear power should be abandoned in favour of far cheaper and safer renewable energy technologies. Technologies that produce clean energy and do not perpetuate the racist environmental crimes of the past.

This article, written by Dr Neil Overy, was first published on News24 here:

ANALYSIS | Nuclear waste and racial injustice: SA’s troubling legacy

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– Dr Neil Overy is an environmental researcher, writer, and photographer. He has worked in the non-profit sector for more than 20 years and is a research associate in environmental humanities south at the University of Cape Town.