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South Africans Question the Push to “Go Down the Nuclear Road” to Meet Rising Energy Demand

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As the nuclear crisis unfolds in Japan, Democracy Now! reports from South Africa on the government’s plan to triple the country’s nuclear fleet in order to meet rising energy demand. South Africa has the only nuclear reactor on the continent — the Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town — but there are plans to build six more reactors. We speak with South African nuclear expert David Fig, who says, “We need to really assess as a country whether we want to go down the nuclear road for further energy purposes.” We also speak to Makoma Lekalakala of Earthlife Africa, who says that the country’s significant potential for solar and wind energy should be developed. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As we continue on the issue of nuclear power, we go back to South Africa, which is the only country in Africa with nuclear power plants. Amy Goodman is in Johannesburg with more on this. Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks, Juan, and hello to all of our listeners and viewers all over the world. And a special word of condolence and concern for our friends throughout Japan, to our colleagues at Asahi Newstar, which is the TV station that broadcasts Democracy Now! in Japan. And also, here in South Africa, to our friends at Cape Town TV, UHF Channel 38. Democracy Now! broadcasts there, as well as other countries through Africa and around the world.

Well, as we said at the top of the show, I am in Johannesburg, South Africa, to cover the historic return of the Aristides, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, his wife Mildred, and their two daughters, to Haiti later this week. I plan to cover this on the plane that the South African government is providing to bring the Aristides from South Africa to Haiti.

But right now, as we talk about the catastrophe that has befallen Japan, and particularly the nuclear aspects of it, I thought it was critical that we should be able to look at what’s happening here in South Africa, because countries all over the world are now looking at their nuclear policy. Tomorrow, there’s expected to be a major protest here in Johannesburg, and we’re going to talk about that in a few minutes. But right now, talking about this issue of nuclear South Africa, the only country in Africa to have nuclear power plants — there are two, the Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town — we’re joined now by David Fig, who is an economist. He is an environmentalist, a sociologist, and has written, among other books, Uranium Road: Questioning South Africa’s Nuclear Direction.

David Fig, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about how it is that South Africa is the only country in Africa to have nuclear power.

DAVID FIG: Well, South Africa had a lot of uranium. And so, the first time that we were integrated into the world nuclear industry was through providing uranium to the bomb programs of your country, the United States, and Britain, in the ’40s and ’50s. And then, as prizes, we were given research reactors by President Eisenhower. And later, during apartheid, the world turned a blind eye while we made nuclear weapons. And so, the nuclear energy industry was just a smokescreen, in a way, for arming apartheid during the Cold War.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about these nuclear power plants. You have two. You stopped one.

DAVID FIG: Well, we have two that were built in the '80s by the French. They are coming — they're about in the middle of their shelf life. They’re getting older and older. And our current government is looking to expand from providing five percent of our energy from nuclear to — tripling that to about 14, 15 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you stop the one? And what was its model? I understand, similar to those in the United States.

DAVID FIG: We, South Africa, tried to develop something called the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. It has various names in different places. It’s also being developed in the U.S. But too much money was thrown at it. Huge, big subsidies were given to the designers, who had to change the design approximately five times and had very little to show for it. And we would have had to throw much more money at it to get to a demonstration plant. And last year, we managed to get the government to cancel the whole program.

AMY GOODMAN: How has Japan affected South Africa, what has taken place there? It’s interesting, we are in the studios right now of many different networks in Johannesburg. We’re right near the headquarters of SABC, South African Broadcasting Corporation. And here, global networks from around the world — NHK, Japan, South Africa, is right downstairs. But how has this catastrophe affected you here?

DAVID FIG: I think, firstly, it’s shown up the industry as being extremely dangerous and problematic. And we need to really assess as a country whether we want to go down the nuclear road for further energy purposes. We have a strong lobby in the country, which, for example, the head of the French atomic industry sits on our president’s Investment Advisory Council. So there’s strong lobbying to get further reactors built. But as people who are interested in securing energy, and energy for the whole country, not just a few mining companies, we need to say that nuclear is not the appropriate road anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to talk about what that appropriate road is, and I want to bring in our second guest into this conversation. We’re joined right now by Makoma Lekalakala. And she is — she is with an organization here in South Africa that is called Earth Rights sic. This is an organization that deals with energy policy. We also — it’s actually called Earthlife Africa. And the organization has just put out a report called “Second Class Citizens: Gender, Energy and Climate Change in South Africa.” It’s being released this week. In fact, it’s being released as you are preparing for this large protest. Explain what this protest will be about tomorrow.

MAKOMA LEKALAKALA: The protest tomorrow comes in the light of the Japan nuclear energy industry disasters. And we feel that South Africa cannot go that route. As South African citizens, we’re concerned. We have been raising issues around nuclear. We’ve been campaigning around nuclear for quite a long time. Actually, one of the organizations, Earthlife Africa in Johannesburg, in 2004 had actually taken the [inaudible] cabinet of energy to court over the nuclear plant, because the issue was, why were the views of civil society not taken into account before the nuclear plant could be OKed? And part of what we’re going to be protesting about, actually, we’re calling for the government and Eskom to stop and to not extend their nuclear plant for the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Eskom is?

MAKOMA LEKALAKALA: And Japan has given a warning point, and we cannot go that route. We need to have responsible policies, responsible commitments, and as South Africa, the government and the people of South Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: Eskom is?

MAKOMA LEKALAKALA: Eskom is the power utility for the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how women have been left out of the making of energy policy, which is really your focus.

MAKOMA LEKALAKALA: Historically, South African policy and legislation, there’s a legacy of the past, where, in the apartheid era, it was more patriarchal and male-dominated. And in the new — the so-called new democracy, we still have that kind of legacy going through the ranks in around policy and legislation. At the moment, when policy is being developed in the country, the language that has been spoken there, it’s of megawatts and macroeconomics, rather than what would people want. And the language that is used is not in terms of what people would understand and would be able to make inputs around that. So that is basically the problem that we have.

And also, we have left much of the promises and legislation. There’s so much barriers that ordinary people aren’t able to participate. There has been a lot of flaws around the good legislations that we have, the processes that we have in the country, which makes women, especially poor women, not to be able to participate and have influence in energy and policy legislation, because they’re the ones who actually are the energy managers in their homes and in the whole community.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by “they’re the ones who are the energy managers.”

MAKOMA LEKALAKALA: Yeah, women are the ones mostly who are responsible for making sure that there’s light in the house, there’s food that is being cooked, there’s also water that will be boiled for tea or for other stuff that will be needed in the house, and also that they would know how much electricity would be needed for the week.

Women in the country, for energy efficiency, they’ve also tried move away from our traditional meals and use meals that are not really part of our South African, you know, gourmet. Because of energy efficiency, we have now tended to eat more salads, which are like raw, not cooked, rather than have our mogodu and samp. Mogodu, it’s like tripe; and samp, it’s from mielie-meal. This is like part of our traditional meals, which take longer to cook. So, women have tended to move away from that. And they’re the ones who know how much energy would be needed in the house.

But the other thing, which becomes much more concerning, is that most of the poor communities in this country use prepaid electricity. That is, you buy first your power, then you can be able to use it. It’s not like the conventional meter system where you’d be able to pay at the end of the month.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s like a prepaid phone card.

MAKOMA LEKALAKALA: Yes. This has become a problem for a lot of women, because that denies them access to energy, to electricity, and they are the ones who have to make sure that they are part of managing how much energy is needed in the house. But when that was introduced, women were not part of that decision making. We don’t even know how that came about. The only thing is that we are presented with something that we had to manage and had to deal with it, and that has denied our right to energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Makoma, if you could talk about what “renewable” means, renewable energy, and what that would look here like in South Africa, in — well, aren’t we talking about a new South Africa?

MAKOMA LEKALAKALA: For us, renewable energy is very broad. We’ve got abundant solar in Africa, and South Africa is one of those countries. We have a lot of wind in the country. We have — we can make use of biogas. Everybody, you know, eats, and human waste can produce energy. With the 48 million South Africans, I think we’ve got enough energy from biogas. But this is a source, a base, that is not being exploited. And with solar, we can have various forms of energy from solar, and this is hugely unexploited. And we’ve got wind power also in the country. Those would the three basics that I would say they would be able to supply or complement the energy security that we need in the country, rather than going for nuclear, which is very dirty, expensive and unwanted as a threat to world peace. And the renewable energy, for us, is what we’d opt for, and that has been part of our complaints and our demands. But what we’ve realized is that the South African government doesn’t have political will to invest in renewable energy options. They would rather invest in dirty and dangerous energy forms and also rely on fossil fuel energy that has got catastrophic effects on climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Makoma Lekalakala and David Fig with us today here on Democracy Now!, as we broadcast from Johannesburg, South Africa. And we’ll continue to broadcast the latest news of the Aristides leaving this country, where they have been in exile for seven years, to return to their homeland, Haiti. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez in New York.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thank you, Amy. And we’ll be covering Amy’s trip with President Aristide back to Haiti in the coming days. Tune into for updates, as well.

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