Nuclear power and our national character: iLIVE

11 October 2012 - 12:25 By Gerard Boyce

Indications are that South Africa is poised to embark upon on an ambitious nuclear reactor building programme that will be by far the largest expenditure to be spent in the public’s behalf.

Although the decision to do so is increasingly being justified on financial and technical grounds, a number of unspoken arguments seem to inform the pro-nuclear position, in the popular media at least. Given the unprecedentedly vast scope of this project, in terms of the economic stakes involved and the significant commitments that this decision entails for generations of South Africans, it is conceivable that these arguments and the underlying assumptions which inform them have the potential to influence the character of our society and the vision citizens hold for it. In light of this prospect, it may be worthwhile to interrogate a few key assumptions and the tactics which have been employed to advance the pro-nuclear position.

The first regards the simplistic manner in which the relationship between development and harm, to people or the environment, is used to conflate what is unavoidable with what is acceptable. This argument generally proceeds as follows: the harmful effects of economic development are unavoidable and occur at all levels of economic development. The nuclear industry is but another industry with which is associated its own, albeit unique, harmful effects. If one accepts that harmful effects are unavoidable, why should the harmful effects associated with the nuclear industry not be acceptable? The effect of this logic is to take choice away from members of the public, the onus upon whom is now to defend why they might believe that nuclear energy and the harm associated therewith ought to be unacceptable or impermissible.

The next tactic employed is to rely on omissions, whether deliberate or accidental, to exaggerate the superiority of nuclear energy compared to other forms of electricity generation. This tactic is most clearly revealed when proponents of nuclear energy cite examples of developed countries, like France for instance, that have managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by increasing their nuclear energy capacity. This selective comparison, however, is misleading since these countries are currently only engaged in one aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle: electricity generation. South Africa, by virtue of its location and natural resource endowments, will have to manage all three parts of the nuclear industry: mining and fuel enrichment, electricity generation and re-processing and long-term storage of wastes. Each of these pose their own problems which require their own solutions.

A third tactic employed is to appeal to the ‘greater good.’ According to this argument, nuclear power is preferable because the harmful effects associated therewith are localised and can be borne by the few whilst the benefits are national, to be enjoyed by the many. There is a certain degree of discomfort associated with this argument. Firstly, there is no equivalence between the actual costs which the few will be asked to bear and the possible benefits which other citizens stand to gain. Consider that those who are most exposed to the actual, and potential, harmful effects of nuclear power generation will assume a (direct) real and measurable increase in risk of death, ill-health and reduction in quality of life in general. Those who stand to enjoy the benefits of an expansion in the nuclear industry, however, will not be asked to give up the same if there was no expansion of this industry. Secondly, the experience in other parts of the world suggests that the few will most likely come from among the most marginalised groups in society. Moreover, the long-term obligations created by expanding the nuclear industry will ensure that they are condemned to their marginal status for the foreseeable future. The net result is the perpetuation of the socioeconomic status quo. If one accepts the validity of this reasoning, it follows that appealing to the ‘greater good’ in this case would amount to the tacit endorsement of our extremely skewed socioeconomic distribution and the relatively lower value attached to the lives of some citizens that is implicit therein. Is this the sort of sentiment we would like to pass on to future generations, especially given South Africa’s status as one of the most unequal societies in the world?

Lastly, due to the strategic importance of the technology used to generate nuclear electricity and its destructive potential, it is sometimes necessary for the state to act in the nation’s interests by protecting the nuclear industry from real or perceived threats. In practice, this often means that public scrutiny of this industry’s affairs can always be halted by appealing to the national interest. It is perhaps unfair to single out the nuclear industry in this regard. After all, big-ticket items like multi-billion rand construction projects seem to be the preferred means of developmental expenditure worldwide given the myriad opportunities for corruption and graft which they present whilst safety related issues are certainly not limited to the nuclear industry. In a young democracy struggling to establish norms of openness and accountability and battling long-established traditions of secrecy and repression, however, is it prudent to invest in expanding an industry that seems to enjoy the protection of a vague yet powerful notion which exempts it from the very norms our society is struggling to establish?

In summary, it is readily conceded that the use of these tactics is not restricted to the debate on nuclear power. Nor is it inconceivable that the proponents of nuclear power might address the concerns provoked by the use of these tactics; by providing more information to the public, including a preferential option for those who are likely to be most affected or building in disclosure requirements that ensure transparency in nuclear related affairs for instance. Probably the most convincing way for the nuclear industry to demonstrate its preparedness to address these concerns is if all stakeholders in this debate were to accept a moratorium on the building of nuclear reactors and agree to a referendum on nuclear power in South Africa. Submitting this major policy decision to a referendum gives ordinary citizens a direct role in determining our common destiny. This would not only offer the public the greatest reassurance of the nuclear industry’s intentions but also deepen our democratic values. Arguably, this, above and beyond any economic benefits, would be the single most important contribution which this investment could make towards the development of our national character and the genuine transformation of our society. Buoyed by this hope, I support the call for a referendum on nuclear power in South Africa. Will you?

  • Gerard Boyce is a PhD candidate in the School of Economics and Finance at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity.