SA Catholic Church Calls For Referendum On Nuclear Procurement

Written by Dana Sanchez

South Africa’s Catholic Church wants the government to suspend plans for nuclear power procurements until South Africans in the Christian-majority country can vote on the issue in a referendum,  IBTimes reported.

President Jacob Zuma’s administration plans to add 9,600 megawatts of nuclear energy to the country’s strained power grid by 2030 to reduce its reliance on coal-fired power. The cost for up to eight new nuclear power plants is $100 billion, according to Bloomberg.

It’s only fair that the government directly consults South Africans on the matter, the Catholic Church said.

The risks of adding nuclear energy to the national grid outweigh any economic benefits, according to the Justice and Peace Commission for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, South Africa’s Fin24 reported.

“Although the probability of a nuclear accident is relatively low, the consequences of such an accident cause health hazards for thousands of people and render hundreds of kilometers of land uninhabitable and unsuitable for any use for decades,” said Bishop Abel Gabuza, chairpman of the commission. “The commission has therefore appealed to the government to urgently call for a nuclear referendum.”

South Africa has signed nuclear power deals with the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and France, according to an earlier AFKInsider report. When it announced a deal in September with Russia to build plants worth $10 billion, it took energy watchers by surprise, IndependentOnline reported.

Gordon Mackay, South Africa’s shadow deputy minister of energy, questioned the country’s readiness to expand its nuclear capacity. He said the International Atomic Energy Agency found South Africa’s nuclear preparedness deficient in more than 40 percent of its assessment criteria.

To prepare for the rollout the nuclear power plant construction, South Africa sent students in 2014 for training at nuclear industry entities in China and other countries.

The South African government is struggling with power shortages and economic crisis, but hasn’t yet shown evidence that the country can afford nuclear, Gabuza said. The country should instead focus on renewable energy, he said.

“Given the enormity of the risks that the South African government is asking its citizens to bear through the nuclear option, including the enormous safety risks and economic risks, it is only fair that the government directly consults its people on the matter,” Gabuza said in the statement Tuesday. “A referendum is the best instrument for realizing the common good on this important matter.”

The call to halt South Africa’s nuclear procurement plans comes two days after the Department of Energy announced it has started the procurement process. The department said Sunday it approved a request for proposals from the global nuclear industry pending presidential cabinet approval, according to South Africa’s Eyewitness News.

Credit rating agency Fitch downgraded South Africa to one notch above junk status earlier this month. The economy narrowly avoided a recession in the third quarter, posting 0.7 percent annualized growth. Gross domestic product is expected to expand 1.4 percent this year, according to the central bank — the slowest pace since the 2009 recession.

An electricity deficit in South Africa is hampering economic growth, IBTimes reported. State-owned power utility Eskom is struggling with energy shortages, resulting in production losses for private enterprises.

South Africa should take Italy’s example, said Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. In June 2011, the Italian government held a referendum to poll its citizens on its plans to generate 25 percent of the country’s electricity from nuclear power by 2030. More than 90 percent of voters rejected plans for nuclear power generation, the Guardian reported.

“If our government truly believes that its nuclear decision is serving the best interests of the majority of South Africans, it should not be afraid to emulate the Italian example and open up the matter to a national referendum before the formal bidding process commences,” Gabuza said in a statement Tuesday, according to Fin24.

Former South African Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene promised to make the nuclear program transparent. His successor, Pravin Gordhan, said any deals relating to construction of nuclear power stations would be fiscally prudent, Reuters reported.

South Africa has Africa’s only commercial nuclear power plant — the Koeberg station near Cape Town.