10.08.13.A sunset shot of the Koeberg nuclear power plant next to Melkbosstrand near table View. Picture Ian Landsberg

In deciding to opt for nuclear power, South Africa has opted to swim against the international tide, writes Jovial Rantao.

Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma has designated the new terrain for the struggle in South Africa. It’s the economy. He has also demonstrated that the government can be brave and bold. That it will do anything – including taking risks – to make sure that South Africans are properly looked after.

In delivering his State of the Nation speech, President Zuma made it crystal clear that government has realised it has to drastically grow our economy so that the fortunes of this country can be altered and as a nation we will be able to deal with the challenges of poverty, unemployment and all their attendant problems.

The president also made it clear that government is prepared to do any and everything to grow the economy. And this includes interventions that may be deemed unpopular and unwelcome in some quarters.

One of these interventions is South Africa turning to nuclear energy in a desperate attempt to address our current and future energy needs.

In the middle of winter, when the national grids are under enormous stress and neighbourhoods are plunged into darkness, the focus on energy security would have struck a chord with many.

It would have given hope to the residents of Mofolo, Soweto, who this week resorted to violence to express their anger at the intermittent power cuts amid sub-10° temperatures.

It will also give something to look forward to for the residents of many Johannesburg suburbs, who have had to endure hours and, in some cases, days without electricity.

In deciding to opt for nuclear power, South Africa has opted to swim against the international tide, where the overwhelming trend is to go for cleaner, newer and environmentally safe forms of energy.

Many industrialised nations are restructuring their energy supply system and are moving away from that of coal, oil, gas and nuclear.

These nations are moving towards renewable energy sources such as hydro-power, wind and solar energy.

This transition has, in the main, been informed by two realities. The first is that fossil fuel resources such as coal, oil and gas are becoming increasingly scarce.

The other reality, the bigger of the two, is that nations of the world are threatened by climate change.

Renewable energy is not only environmentally friendly but it is also much cheaper than nuclear power plants and coal-fired plants.

Our government deserves credit for acting, when the nation is faced with a crisis.

The question, however, is whether we are keeping today’s generation in peril while placing future generations at great risk.

There is no doubt that South Africa and our president will attract scorn for the decision to opt for nuclear energy. The 2011 nuclear reactor disaster in Fukushima, Japan, is still fresh in many people’s minds.

We will now become the subject of hate campaigns from environmental activitists backed by some powerful, yet faceless powers.

The same would apply to the decision by government to go ahead with shale gas fracking.

However, Zuma, I would imagine, will shoot back with an answer that would help people appreciate that, as a leader, he sometimes has to take unpopular decisions that will prove right for the moment. Decisions that will provide solutions to problems faced by the people he leads.

Solutions that will, in this case, provide energy security and help to grow the economy.

The president of a country always has to do what is in the interest of the country, no matter how unpopular.

We cannot ignore the risks associated with nuclear energy but perhaps we can take solace in the assurances that the nuclear and shale gas energy will be pursued within the strict environmental laws of this country.

I would have liked the president to have gone a step further and explained how government, given the nuclear energy decision, plans to achieve its climate protection targets.

These are radical plans but they perhaps should be viewed rationally – putting national interest first. None of us will be brave enough to go to Mofolo or any part of Johannesburg and explain to them why they must stay in the dark and cold, in the middle of the fiercest of winters.

But quiet clearly, the president’s message is quiet simple.

There comes a time when leaders must do all they can to improve the lives of those they lead.

And this will include taking necessary and important steps, no matter how unpopular they might be.

* Jovial Rantao is editor of the Sunday Independent.

Sunday Independent