News / Africa

Activists: Nuclear Power Poses Environmental, Security Risks in Africa

African nations looking to establish or expand nuclear power capabilities.
African nations looking to establish or expand nuclear power capabilities.
South Africa has made clear it intends to add several more nuclear power plants to its current energy mix. There are 21 other African countries thinking about pursuing nuclear power. With more than 600 million Africans off the energy grid, nuclear power is being promoted as a clean and efficient answer. However, some activists worry about the cost, the environment and potential security hazards.
Dominique Gilbert lives near the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center, where from the 1960s to the 1980s the South African government developed atomic bombs before becoming the first country to ever voluntarily give up nuclear weapons.
When she drives by the dam next to the facility, where uranium is still enriched, she sees men casting lines into the water, and eating the fish they pull out.
Gilbert, a founding member of the Coalition Against Nuclear Energy South Africa, is worried that the South African government - facing a severe energy shortage - is rushing plans for more nuclear power without public awareness of the downside.
"Unfortunately there hasn't been that much information spread around the general public about the dangers of nuclear and certainly the costs of nuclear. So it’s not just health. But we believe it will bankrupt this country. It's totally and utterly unaffordable," she said.
South Africa currently has two nuclear reactors at its Koeberg Nuclear Power Station. The waste from those reactors is disposed of at the Vaalputs Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility.
Gilbert said South Africa has done little to study the effects of nuclear energy on surrounding communities, or to educate the public.
"First of all, is air releases… Because people can't see radiation, they can't smell it, they can't touch it. But these particles are floating around all the time, particularly during accidents... During routine operations there are emissions all the time. Another aspect that worries us enormously is the river. Because nuclear technologies and reactors and so forth are highly dependent on water… Pelindaba, for example, uses, or releases, what they term low level radioactive waste by the thousands of liters in the Crocodile River," said Gilbert.
While such concerns about radiation exposure have been around for decades globally, some experts believe that nuclear fuel actually poses fewer health risks than something like coal - on which South Africa is heavily dependent.
"Of all the energy sources that there are, nuclear has shown itself to be the safest, and it’s quite amazing how much of a public misconception there's been about this. That there's been absolute scare tactics developed," said Kelvin Kemm, a nuclear physicist and chief executive of Nuclear Africa.
More than three years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan damaged its Fukushima nuclear plant, resulting in the meltdown of three of its six reactors, the country is still battling to contain radiation leaks and the impact has been felt globally. Activists have said there is good reason to be scared, but Kemm disagrees.
"At Fukushima, they call it a nuclear disaster. It was not a nuclear disaster. Not one single person was killed at Fukushima by radiation. Not one single person was injured at Fukushima by radiation. Not one bit of private property was harmed by radiation at Fukushima. There was a general disaster from the tsunami and the earthquake, but there was no nuclear problem as such," said Kemm.
Perhaps not yet. But here in South Africa, some residents and workers near nuclear facilities at Pelindaba and Vaalputs say they have unexplained health problems they blame on radiation.
"People around the area in Koeberg they have illnesses, which even the doctors can't explain to them what kind of illnesses they are having. Most of them they have been in and out of the clinics… Around Vaalputs, people who have lived near there for quite a long time - since the dumpsite has been proposed. Their kids no longer feel free to go barefooted. They have side effects. It's a concern to this community," said Fenky Mofiwa, who works with the environmental group Off the Ground Foundation.
He pointed to the devastating radiation impact that 1986 Chernobyl meltdown had on residents in the then-Soviet Union.
"Our decision makers, they didn't consider and follow on other accidents which happened around the world. They just considered another source of producing energy… [They didn’t think of] the accident[s] which [have] happened, like in Chernobyl. There's no one who can go there and live. The environment is no longer good for human beings," said Mofiwa.
But perhaps the biggest concern about a nuclear-powered African continent is a lack of stability and security leaving nuclear facilities more vulnerable to attack or, as Gilbert worries, theft of nuclear materials for weapons. 
"There's a lot of conflict and political tension in Africa. A lot of increasing terrorist activity, particularly in north and central Africa. Crime syndicates operating,” said Gilbert.
Knox Msebenzi, the Managing Director of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa, acknowledged that safety is a legitimate concern, but one that can be managed.
"We basically have a choice between isolating certain communities because of their politics or bringing them on board into the international community where international bodies can actually monitor what they are doing. One of the conditions for having a nuclear program is that the watch dog, the IAEA, has got to play its part - irrespective of politics, if there is a watchdog that is capable of making sure that happens," said Msebenzi.
Gilbert isn't comforted by that idea. For her and Mofiwa, the way to avoid both nuclear proliferation and possible health and environmental issues, is to invest in renewable energy sources. Nonetheless, in his state of the nation address, South African President Jacob Zuma said the country will be moving forward with a project to give the country 9,600 megawatts of nuclear energy.

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle reports from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs