If SA were the Titanic, new nuclear investments would be the iceberg that could have sunk us had we stayed the course. Despite a questionable resurgence in the media recently of nuclear nostalgia, it is widely recognised now that we narrowly avoided a potential economic and environmental disaster, mainly because rational decisionmaking seems to be once again de rigueur in SA. Rational decisionmaking means uneconomic, unaffordable, unjust electricity choices simply cannot be made.

Neither the 2008 plans for new nuclear power stations nor the 2015 plans for new nuclear power stations bore fruit, with one main reason: they were simply unaffordable. Even if the plans for nuclear had gone ahead (and here we really are navel-gazing), nuclear power stations are notorious for delivering well behind schedule, and well over budget. This means it usually takes nearly 15 years to build new nuclear power stations, usually at an exorbitant cost. If the 2015 plans had gone ahead, we still would only have seen new nuclear power generation by 2023 at the earliest – and we would have had to pay the piper to the tune of around R1-trillion.

The severity of risks associated with nuclear, primarily a deadly combination of technological faults and human error, cannot be ignored. 

South Africans do not need to look far to understand why anything with an exorbitant price tag should be avoided. We only need look to mega coal-fired power stations Medupi and Kusile: both are (still) under construction, but are also ludicrously far behind schedule and embarrassingly over budget. Costs to build Medupi and Kusile have increased by more than R300bn above initial projections. Both Medupi and Kusile are underperforming due to construction and technology issues.

The result? Load-shedding, combined with significant and sustained electricity price increases that few of us can afford. Johannesburg residents alone are paying 12.2% more for electricity as of July 1. 

There are serious problems associated with nuclear power that cannot be ignored. There is no long-term solution to radioactive nuclear waste, and in fact, the most highly radioactive waste is stored on-site at Koeberg on the outskirts of Cape Town. The severity of risks associated with nuclear, primarily a deadly combination of technological faults and human error, cannot be ignored. 

The recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl is a harrowing, true story, detailing just how badly things can go wrong when nuclear disaster strikes. The miniseries has concluded, but the real-life catastrophe never does. Almost 350,000 people were evacuated after the nuclear meltdown in the 1980s. Today, about 5-million people still live in areas that are officially designated “contaminated”. The lingering effects of Chernobyl, over three decades later, are expected to cause 9,000 more deaths, according to conservative estimates by the World Health Organisation. According to Greenpeace’s own research, the number of deaths from cancers caused by Chernobyl is closer to 100,000.

Nuclear is clearly never safe, so who will take responsibility if the inherent risks of nuclear in SA turn to reality? Whose pockets would be lined if nuclear projects doomed to failure did go ahead? Certainly not the SA taxpayer, though we would be left holding the very, very expensive electricity bill.

It is a shame that the pronuclear lobby is still trying to drag SA backwards instead of recognising that their day is done. We can’t afford nuclear, and that should be the end of it. What we can afford, since it is the cheapest source of electricity, is new renewable energy. Over Easter I drove through the Eastern Cape to get to the Drakensberg, and on some of the province’s rolling hills there were giant wind turbines, quietly generating the electricity we so desperately need. What a breath of fresh air — no dirty or dangerous power stations in sight.

Imagine the renewable energy capacity we could install at a reformed Vaalputs (our current nuclear waste storage site, if it can be called that): 1,000ha of land dedicated not to hiding our toxic waste underground for thousands of years, but to clean, safe renewable energy generation.

Gwede Mantashe. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Gwede Mantashe. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

This picturesque scene offers little comfort when our leadership remains steadfastly committed to flirting with nuclear. In his budget vote speech last week energy minister Gwede Mantashe told South Africans the country “would acquire nuclear at a price, pace and scale that it can afford”. Interpreting that timeline is difficult: Eskom is buried under mountainous debt that could sink the entire economy; the government has no clear plans for decommissioning Eskom’s ancient coal fleet; we don’t have a plan for the Just Transition in place; we have barely a decade left to avoid a complete climate breakdown; and nearly 2-million people still don’t have access to electricity.

How does nuclear affordably (and reasonably) fit into this picture? It simply doesn’t. Not now, and not at some unspecified future date. To continue to leave the door ajar to nuclear means we are not fully committing to powering our future with renewable energy.

Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, combined with Cape Town’s Day Zero, persistent droughts across the country and the floods in KwaZulu-Natal, are a stark reminder that we are already living with the consequences of a climate crisis, and if we don’t act quickly to shift our energy systems away from fossil fuels we will soon be living on an uninhabitable planet. None of us wants that, either for ourselves or for our children. We need to make sure the right decisions are made, and we cannot be derailed by vested interests trying to sell our future to the highest bidder. 

We’ve had enough bizarre, inexplicable, infuriating, damaging choices being made on our behalf over the past decade. It is enough. Enough corruption. Enough irrational and opaque decisionmaking. Enough delays in finalising our electricity future through refusing to publish a final integrated resource plan. Enough squeezing South Africans dry. It is time for rational, least-cost decisionmaking to become firmly entrenched in SA. Rationally, investing in our incredible renewable energy resources makes the most sense.

• Steele is Greenpeace Africa’s senior climate and energy campaign manager.