19 July 2024 | 07:05 AM

There goes the neighbourhood … here comes nuclear

Key Takeaways

The process of rolling out a massive nuclear power expansion programme gained momentum in November when the Cabinet endorsed electricity utility Eskom as the owner and operator of the proposed new nuclear power stations.

But the plan still faces an uphill public battle, not least from the people in whose back yard the first new nuclear behemoth is going to be carved out.

The Mail & Guardian went to Thyspunt in the Eastern Cape, where Eskom is finalising the environmental plan for its preferred site, to hear what locals have to say about living next door to nukes.

‘Something terrible’

Hettie Booysen has a recurring vision. From afar it looks like thousands of heads of wheat swaying in the breeze. But when she gets closer, she sees her ancestors rising up from the ground, their arms stretched skywards in prayer.

Booysen is descended from a Khoisan tribe, the Gamtkwa, which has lived off the bounty of this section of the Cape coast since the late Stone Age. The Gamtkwa’s spiritual attachment to the land is centuries old. For Booysen, the thought of a nuclear power station on top of her ancestors’ graves fills her with foreboding.

The shifting sand dunes behind the proposed site are known to reveal ancient Khoisan burial sites and then to conceal them again.

Here the Khoisan devised a way of harnessing the comings and goings of the tide to catch fish. A man-made row of jagged rocky teeth protrudes from the shallows offshore, less than a kilometre from where the reactors will be.

The few roads that slice through the virgin fynbos are littered with shell fragments and shards of rock — the remnants of Khoisan middens and tools.

To Booysen, the history and heritage of her people are inscribed on this landscape. But Eskom’s plans would rip her ancestors out of the ground and put them in museum storage. They would rip Booysen’s heart out of her chest too, she said, indicating with a balled fist exactly where it already ached.

Booysen is Gamtkwa blue blood, married to the tribal chief, Ronnie Booysen.

The tribe’s more recent history is one of displacement as successive waves of colonisers have swept along their shores and dumped them like flotsam somewhere else.

The Booysens live in Hankey, 50km inland from Thyspunt on the Gamtoos River, close to the resting place of their most famous ancestor, Sarah Baartman.

Baartman was enslaved and then, in 1810, taken to Europe where she was paraded in front of leering crowds as an exotic curiosity. After she died in 1815, Baartman’s body was cut up and studied by anatomists.

In 2002, the South African government repatriated her remains to Hankey and she was buried beneath a cairn of round stones atop Vergaderingskop (Meeting Hill). Some of the stones were recently adorned with ANC stickers, trumpeting the creation of the Sarah Baartman region in May this year.

A dry wind blew litter into the thorny bushes near the grave site and we stepped over a desiccated condom lying in the dust.

Booysen explained the dissatisfaction the Khoisan feel with what they perceive as the “lip service” being paid to them by cynical politicians.
The Khoisan are depicted symbolically on the national coat of arms and are moving closer to attaining formal “first nation” indigenous status in South Africa. But the Gamtkwa community still feels marginalised and establishing a nuclear reactor atop a priceless heritage site is likely to alienate them further.

“Why is it always the Khoisan heritage that must be sacrificed when developments take place?” asked Booysen. “They are always prepared to protect the heritage of other cultures — why are they not prepared to do it for us, the first nation of this country?”

‘It’s gonna fuck the fish’

The only place on the South African coastline where the chokka squid (Loligo vulgaris reynaudii) breeds is within a 20km radius of the proposed nuclear site at Thyspunt.

Greg Christy, a 2m tall moustachioed, bandy-legged man of the sea, switched from occasionally catching squid for fish bait in these waters three decades ago to building a R500‑million-a-year commercial industry that operates from Port St Francis’s tiny harbour.

Christy is vice-chairperson of the South African Squid Management Industrial Association, which prides itself on running a small, lucrative and sustainable industry.

About 2 300 fishermen employed on 80 boats catch an average of 7 500 tonnes of squid a season.

Almost all their catch is exported to Mediterranean Europe, where the chewiness of South African squid is prized by calamari lovers.

A considerable support industry has also flourished here, providing the fishing fleet with food, fuel, maintenance, packaging and cold storage.

Christy is not prone to sentimentality, but the mysterious nature of the chokka squid still amazes him.

“They are extremely sensitive to environmental change,” he said. “One day you’ll catch loads; the next day the weather or the tide changes and you catch nothing. We still don’t know what attracts them to breed here and only here, but the fact that they do means the environment is perfect for them, so don’t fuck it up.”

He is referring to Eskom’s plans to dump 6.3‑million cubic metres of sand out to sea after digging down to the bedrock under the dunes to anchor the nuclear reactors.

It is expected that, over a decade, the tides will slowly level out the undersea mound of sand over an area of 18km2, taking up 25% of the undersea area where the squid are known to lay their eggs.

Other potential disruptions include Eskom’s plans to draw in seawater to cool the reactors and then return it to the sea at a warmer temperature and different salinity. There is also a planned 1km security exclusion zone out to sea where no vessels will be allowed to fish.

Christy is unhappy with a report prepared by the squid scientific working group — a structure in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries department — that concluded that the impact of the nuclear build on squid breeding grounds would be “negligible”.

“They are government guys and the government’s big-picture plan is to provide power. But then they should put it somewhere else, not where squid breed,” he said.

Deprived of 25% of its fishing area, it is assumed that the local industry will contract by a quarter.

The working group has suggested that it “should enter into dialogue with Eskom and broker a compensation agreement that clearly specifies the basis on which the impact on squid fishing is measured”.

But Christy knows that, as far as the unpredictable squid are concerned, it’s not that simple.

“In the space of one year squid lay their eggs, they breed, they die. So a single major disruption will affect an entire year’s catch,” he said.

“Squid communicate with one another by changing colour. Some of that has to do with mating. For how long after Eskom has pumped sand and other building spoil out into the sea will turbid events like swell currents continue to stir up the loose sediment, discolouring the water?”

Christy also believes his global competitors will seize the opportunity to bad-mouth South African squid for having been caught in the vicinity of a nuclear reactor.

He is a self-made millionaire with much to lose, but his concern is shared by community fishermen such as Kevin Hammond, who has several hungry mouths to feed.

Demonstrating an eloquent directness that serves him well as chairperson of the Jeffrey’s Bay Traditional Fisherman’s Forum, Hammond said: “I’m not a scientist; I’m only a fisherman. But I can tell you right now: Thyspunt is gonna fuck the fish.”

He praised the fisheries department for introducing experimental abalone quotas for small-scale community fishermen. “This is a big thing for us, because now we’re going to be businessmen,” he said.

But the threat to squid fishing represents two steps backwards.

Hammond scoffed at the accuracy of the working group’s report, which suggests that an easterly current will flatten Eskom’s pile of sand: “If you’ve fished those waters all your life, you will know that the tides move in a northerly direction.”

He recalled what the construction of the Marina Martinique development did to squid, previously so plentiful off the rocks of Klipkop before it was dynamited to make way for the exclusive resort in 1989.

“Nobody dumped any sand there; they blasted it. But to this day there you never again catch a lot of squid.”

‘Fighting with facts’

Trudi Malan drives her bakkie barefoot and rescues baby African penguins. But she’s not your stereotypical greenie. Not by a long shot.

Malan co-ordinates the broad range of interest groups opposed to the construction of a nuclear reactor at Thyspunt. She has moulded the Thyspunt Alliance into a formidable think-tank, the bane of many a hapless Eskom suit dispatched to give PowerPoint presentations to the community.

“I’ve said from the very beginning: we’re going to fight this thing with facts rather than with emotions,” she said.

To this end, Malan has pored over every single page of Eskom’s first draft environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, or 13 lever-arch files worth of paper, identifying potential weaknesses.

She has roped in world-renowned environmental scientists and archaeology professors from universities in the Eastern Cape to bolster the alliance’s brains trust. And she combines a journalist’s eye for homing in on key details with an activist’s appetite for a drawn-out campaign.

Malan grew up during apartheid in conservative Potchefstroom, where she became an ANC student activist. She moved to Jeffrey’s Bay in 1992 and was instrumental in creating an ANC branch in a predominantly white area. Now she finds herself at loggerheads with several local ANC councillors, her comrades, who want the nuclear build to go ahead.

Malan is not interested in the politics, particularly local politicians’ attempts to frame nuclear energy as a black-versus-white issue. Her sole aim is to ensure that the decisions taken comply with environmental law.

“If Eskom decides to go ahead, then I want to make sure all the checks and balances are in place for the good of the community. That’s what the EIA process is for.”

Eskom has already bought most of the land around the proposed nuclear site, blocking access from the landward side, but Malan knows a road through the Rebelsrus Private Nature Reserve. From there it’s an hour’s walk, first along a sandy beach and then a rocky one.

The rich green coastal thicket undulates like a tea plantation all the way up the dunes to the skyline and fresh groundwater trickles out of the ground into a wetland just a few metres from the sea.
In its draft assessment, Eskom acknowledges that “the Thyspunt site would experience environmental impacts of higher significance” than any other sites it has studied.

The utility said that, once the reactors were built, it planned to create a larger conservation area around Thyspunt, which would have “a positive effect on the environment”.

Behind the skyline lies a wind- and water-driven dune system that moves gradually eastward, resuscitating the beach to the north of St Francis Bay.

The dunes contain a great deal of untapped fresh water, which could provide future relief to this water-scarce area, whereas the sand acts as an important flood break for surface water that might otherwise carry St Francis Bay with it into the sea.

Eskom’s access road and power lines will go out over these dunes and could disrupt their natural flow, as well as put the parastatal’s own transport and transmission infrastructure at risk.

Malan is also concerned that hundreds of heavy vehicles will grind along the single road joining St Francis Bay to the N2 highway during peak construction periods.

“This could be an industrial zone for the next 15 years. I’m lucky; I can move away. But poor people can’t and they will bear the brunt of the dust, the noise and the disruption.”

And the nuclear waste?

Malan smiled wryly: “That will go out through the Garden Route.”

‘Jo’burg is coming!’

Zolani Mayoni is the ANC ward councillor for Umzamawethu, Oyster Bay and the surrounding farms. Umzamawethu, where Mayoni lives, is an 800-strong community with an 80% unemployment rate.

An affable man with a gold ear stud and a dusty black bakkie, Mayoni said: “We are very positive about nuclear. It must go ahead.”

He joked about the comparatively affluent Oyster Bay being “a place for old white people”.

“They don’t want noise and they don’t want traffic; they want to retire quietly. But there is nothing happening here and people need the jobs. When we get nuclear, it will be like Jo’burg here!”

In a symbolic gesture, the ANC-dominated Kouga municipal council voted in favour of the nuclear reactor at Thyspunt in December last year.

Mayoni said jobs would be created for welders, technicians, fencers, cleaners, caterers and grass-cutters. “We don’t want to be excluded and we don’t want to be unskilled labour only. We must have construction jobs too.”

He has a cordial relationship with Eskom’s local stakeholder manager and has toured Koeberg courtesy of the parastatal. He is critical of the seasonal nature of the squid industry’s job patterns and claims that more than 50 lives were lost from drowning and other accidents since 2006.

Sceptical of claims that a nuclear site would wipe out the squid, he said: “When I was at Koeberg, I saw fish swimming there. I think it is just propaganda.”

Christy was unable to provide squid industry-specific fatality figures, but according to the latest data for the entire fishing industry compiled by the South African Marine Safety Authority, 21 people have died at sea in the wider Port Elizabeth area since 2006.

Mayoni is also critical of Khoisan objections, saying that they were raised at the last minute to “frustrate” the process.

“The Khoisan are one of us; they are married to us. If they have a problem, they must put their issues on the table,” he said.

“As the ANC, we are very strategic. We are never going to say yes to something that can sink the country economically. Soon there will be no coal. We need a long-term solution to our electricity crisis.”


It’s all above board, says Eskom

Khoisan heritage:

“[Eskom applied for a] permit to perform trial excavations, confirming that there were no sensitive heritage sites where the footprint of the power plant would be constructed. Cultural and archaeological important fish traps and middens will be avoided by setting the power station back 200m from the coastline.”

Squid industry:

“Meetings were held with the Squid Working Group … the outcome was confirmation that the impact of the activities on squid would be insignificant.”


“A meeting was held between specialists commissioned by the Thyspunt Alliance and the EIA’s dune geomorphology specialists. The respective specialists agreed to disagree on the impacts on dune morphology. The view of the EIA specialists is that debris flow will not occur on the Thyspunt site.


“Initial results that have already been obtained indicate that the original assumptions that the potential destruction of the wetland can be mitigated are accurate.”

Single road link to the N2:

“The re-revised report provides options based on the comments submitted by the public.”


“The estimated direct number of jobs, at the peak of construction, is 7 700. This would be in approximately year six of the nine-year construction period. Most of these jobs would be skilled jobs filled by people outside the area but the EIA’s social specialists recommend that 25% of jobs should go to local people within 25km of the site.” — Tony Stott, Eskom spokesperson on nuclear energy

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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