Keeping the Public in the Dark

This is an opinion piece that appeared in the Business Day, 30 June, 2016. This piece also appeared in the Rand Daily Mail.

In 1994, the Western Cape ANC’s science and technology desk, in partnership with the Environmental Monitoring Group, hosted a two-day conference in Cape Town on what it described as the “nuclear debate”. Among other issues, the question of ANC policy on Koeberg and any future procurement of nuclear power stations was discussed.

In his opening address Trevor Manuel, who would go on to become finance minister, warned that the new government should not follow the pattern of the apartheid regime on nuclear matters. While the apartheid government had “preferred to deal with these matters in secret and to cover their tracks”, Manuel said in future “the debate must be public and the actions transparent”, adding that SA should not “tolerate circumstances in which policy on issues as critical as the nuclear programme be confined to experts in dark, smoke-filled rooms. The debate must be public and the actions transparent.”

This reflected concerns about an industry known for its secrecy; its unwillingness to engage in open, robust debate; and its wilful distortion of facts as they relate to the health, costs and environmental impacts of nuclear power plants, and other forms of power generation such as renewables.

Like the arms deal before it, the current procurement of 9,600MW of nuclear power capacity threatens to further undermine the fragile democratic gains made in SA since the end of apartheid. Any reasoned assessment of the procurement process to date cannot but conclude that it has been undertaken in a deeply troubling and secretive manner. Evidence suggests it is being handled in a way that merges the narrow kleptocratic interests of elements within the governing parties of SA and Russia, with the narrow technocratic and financial interests of those who promote the adoption of nuclear power more widely. This is a merger of interests that has little, if any, concern for the wider public good in SA.

In its eagerness to procure nuclear power the government is riding roughshod over democratic and participatory processes enshrined in the Constitution. In their founding affidavit opposing the nuclear deal, Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute assert that the government has acted in a way that is “secretive, obstructive and prejudicial” to the public’s interests.

They argue that the government has not lawfully or constitutionally determined that new generation capacity is needed, nor that it should come from nuclear power. Second, they contend that evidence indicates that substantial commitments have been made by the government to the Russian State Atomic Energy Commission (Rosatom) in regard to the procurement of nuclear power plants with no public or parliamentary scrutiny or oversight.

How much truth there is to these contentions is up to the high court to decide. What can be said with certainty is that the ANC-led government has obfuscated at every turn when it comes to democratic oversight of the proposed nuclear procurement. The government has side-stepped parliamentary obligations (especially on portfolio committee oversight); released contradictory statements both within and by different ministries; and almost completely refused to answer questions posed by journalists and members of civil society.

Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s refusal to release information on costs because it would only cause “confusion” is illustrative of the process. This censoring of information leaves an impression of deals being struck in secret by political and technocratic elites more interested in personal enrichment than in democratic processes.

Last month the African Utility Week conference was held in Cape Town. At a side event, sponsored by the Nuclear Industry Association of SA and Rosatom, Tom Blees, the president of the US-based pro-nuclear pressure group the Science Council for Global Initiatives, advocated wholesale law reform in SA. Highlighting how successful the “planned societies” of China and Russia were in constructing nuclear power stations on time and budget, he said SA should adopt legislation to prevent “communities and environmental groups” from stopping nuclear plants with “nuisance lawsuits”.

He recommended that SA emulate the UK, where legislation has been passed that enables the government to side-step opposition to mega-projects on the basis of supposed “national welfare”. This is a deeply antidemocratic discourse, designed not only to foreclose debate but also to enable private companies such as Rosatom to operate in an environment freed from constitutional and environmental restraints.

Sharon Beder of the University of Wollongong in New South Wales has shown how industry lobby groups, often dressed up as independent research units or public-interest groups, distort domestic debates and push industry objectives regardless of whether these objectives are in the interests of affected countries or communities.

A case in point is a piece in ESI Africa that glossed over concerns about the likely costs of the nuclear build on the basis of SA’s alleged 6.5% annual growth rate over the past 15 years. Where these figures come from is anyone’s guess. According to Statistics SA, economic growth over the past 15 years has averaged just below 3%; since 2008 nearer 2%; and this year to date 0.4%.

In his presentation to the African Utility Week conference, Blees rubbished the idea that SA’s energy needs could be met by renewables. He lamented the existence of a “cottage industry of professors in various countries claiming that all you need are the latest windmills and solar panels”. Drawing his particular ire was Stanford University professor Mark Z Jacobson, whom Blees claimed was believed by most “energy professionals” to be “a charlatan”. Jacobson is, in fact, the head of Stanford’s atmosphere-energy programme and has authored numerous peer-reviewed academic papers on renewable energy futures.

In attacking the case for renewables in SA, Blees is following the now well-established tradition of trying to manufacture doubt to serve narrow corporate interests — those of Rosatom, perhaps? Blees also bemoaned the fact that millions of people worldwide believed in the potential of renewables to the extent that politicians were having to react by promoting renewables. This is a deeply antidemocratic sentiment. In a democracy, policy is supposed to reflect what is in the interest of the majority, not be driven by a technocratic elite working for corporate profits.

In the keynote address at the ANC’s 1994 conference on the nuclear debate, antiapartheid activist Abdul Minty stated that “in terms of a new nuclear policy for SA, we do need to know about our history”. Sadly, few in the government of 2016 seem willing to heed this warning.

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