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South African bishops call for referendum on nuclear power plants

Members of the South African Faith Communities' Environment Institute protest in late July outside parliament in Cape Town (CNS photo/Nic Bothma, EPA)

The bishops of South Africa have called for a referendum on plans for new nuclear plants in the country, saying they are unaffordable.

The risks of adding nuclear energy to South Africa’s power grid outweigh its economic benefits, the country’s Catholic justice and peace commission said as it called for a halt to nuclear procurement plans.

South Africa is in financial crisis and cannot afford the new nuclear plants, reported to cost about $100 billion, the commission said in a December 29 statement by its chairman, Bishop Abel Gabuza of Kimberley.

The statement, which followed an announcement that the government would go ahead with plans to add 9,600 megawatts of nuclear energy to the country’s strained grid and would call for bids, also raised concerns about the project’s vulnerability to corruption.

The commission urged President Jacob Zuma’s administration to poll citizens on its plans.

“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,” said Bishop Gabuza.

“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 land uninhabitable and unusable for decades, he said.

“Considering the enormity of the damage when an accident occurs, the dangers of nuclear energy to human life will always remain very high,” he said.

As well as incurring insurmountable public debt, the procurement could threaten South Africa’s sovereign control over its energy security, the statement said.

The government should concentrate its efforts and fiscal resources on renewable energy, it said.

South Africa’s electricity deficit is among factors hampering the country’s economic growth.

Archbishop William Slattery of Pretoria was among church leaders who met with Zuma mid-December after the president dismissed the finance minister in a move that saw the country’s currency plummet to record lows.

The Church leaders told the president that inflation caused by the financial crisis would hurt the poor the most and urged him to work on rebuilding public confidence in his administration.