JOHANNESBURG — 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.