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Health and environmental risks

Getting closer – also through the already mentioned nuclear deals – to Russia and other BRIC countries has also been a way for South Africa to find powerful allies on various issues being discussed within the international community. Among those, climate change is one of the most relevant and, given the fact that South Africa is mainly dependent on fossil fuels, talking about it is also talking about energy production.

Cutting carbon emissions is not just an international obligation that might be made less stringent with the help of new world powers (China and India have similar concerns) but also a need pointed out by many. Relying heavily on fossil fuels already has important consequences on health and environment, that is, on the life of the people. Coal literally kills: according to a report by the environmental NGO Greenpeace, published last February, at least 2700 deaths a year are due to South African thermoelectric power plants.

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The problem, however, is broader and includes the places where coal is mined, for instance areas in the Mpumalanga region – which also hosts 12 of the plants – around towns such as Witbank. Here a European Union research team has recorded such high levels of pollutants that the press has defined the air in this area “the dirtiest in the world”. Consequences can be easily seen among the people: lung diseases like tuberculosis and asthma are on the rise. Nevertheless, liability is a controversial issue: environmental NGOs accuse Eskom, but the utility blames the unrestrained domestic use of coal. The latter is without any doubt a widespread problem in South Africa – and a relevant issue, for instance, in the townships – but cannot be considered the cause of all the environmental damages in the Mpumalanga region. In fact, the EU experts have recorded such high levels of chromium and barium (byproducts of the power plants) that it has been impossible to take accurate measurements.

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Against air pollution, South Africa passed a strict law in 2010. The ‘Air Quality Act’ sets new limits for emissions of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and quicksilver, also forcing those who operate power plants to put in place filters such as those that can reduce the production of sulphur dioxide by 90%. The law is set to enter into force in two stages, in 2015 and 2020. However, Eskom, mentioning factors such as the quality of the coal and the age of the power stations, has already required a postponement of the first deadline. The structural limits of the thermoelectric power plants are another reason why the government opted for nuclear power when looking at the future, but various environmental organizations have pointed out the limits of this choice immediately after the deal with the Russians was signed.
Even with just the Koeberg power station operating, the issue of nuclear waste has already proven to be a serious one: at the moment, only low and medium radioactivity level waste is shipped to Vaalputs – 10 thousand hectares in the Northern Cape province. The most toxic waste which is the output of the power plant (and of the ‘research reactor’ in Pelindaba) are still on site, buried in underground fuel pools, but in the near future a place to dispose of them once and for all will have to be found. As for Vaalputs, on the one hand only 5% of its capacity is currently used and it took three decades to reach that level: so it will be still possible to use it even if more nuclear plants will be operating in the next years. On the other hand, the ‘light’ waste that has been stocked there will contaminate the place for as long as three centuries after 2035, when it is planned that it will not be used anymore. This will require, in order to avoid any health risk, additional costs for surveillance and monitoring. These problems, moreover, will grow with the number of the power plants, if the government’s projects will one day be finalized.

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A second Zuma-sponsored plan is a source of concern, that of fracking. WWF, in particular, cried havoc for the Karoo desert: in the process – which involves pumping a mixture of water and chemicals into the underground – acquifers might be contaminated, just as happened in other branches of the mining industry, including coal mining. According to WWF South Africa is therefore at risk of turning a condition of power scarcity into one of water scarcity. That is why Lesotho Highland Water Project has been put in place: it is an attempt at solving two problems at the same time. The lack of clean water, environmentalists point out, also risks compromising another governmental commitment: creating a million new jobs in the agricultural sector. The many more hectares of land that will be needed, in fact, will also create an increased need for water.

(Davide Maggiore)

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