Tritium found in groundwater outside Koeberg

  • Isotope main suspect behind 2010 Cobalt-58 scare
  • Plant should be decommissioned says Koeberg Alert
  • There is no known threshold beyond which radiation is considered safe

INFORMATION released by environmental organisation Koeberg Alert Alliance (KAA), point to ongoing reactor design problems associated with normal operations at the plant. In particular the production of elemental Tritium (3H) and tritiated water (3H2O) during the course of nuclear fission. The organisation has previously drawn attention to routine Tritium releases and the resulting contamination of borehole water and the water table surrounding Koeberg, in its submissions on the environmental impact of a previous project known as Nuclear 1 — is now concerned about further issues which have emerged from an informal forensic study of the discharge.

“Tritium levels of <3 TU are the “norm” at the Koeberg site but elevated levels of 4.8, 5.5 and 42 TU have been recorded in three boreholes within 50 m of the plant buildings”, suggests the initial report by SRK Consulting, which was conducted over a decade ago in 2010 and is still used by KAA as a baseline requiring further research.

The SRK report illustrates how widespread the Tritium issue has become.

 “These levels are the result of known releases of tritiated steam and condensate and the pathways are as per the original design of the plant and are not due to uncontrolled releases or leaks,” claim SRK who concluded at the time: “The presence of tritium in groundwater at these levels does not pose a risk to people or the environment”.

The report however failed to explain a contamination incident inside the plant affecting 91 workers at the time the report was drafted, and in all likelihood the result of Tritium. The claim of zero health impact is also disputed by KAA.

According to the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA) “The greatest source of radioactivity in the reactor coolant circuit is, however, irradiation of the coolant itself. Neutron bombardment of nitrogen dissolved in the water gives rise to carbon-14. Moreover, irradiation of boron dissolved in the coolant water creates hydrogen-3, i.e. tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen.”

“Radioisotopes such as cobalt-58, cobalt-60 and silver-110m arise as a result of wear or corrosion of reactor components. They become radioactive due to neutron bombardment as they circulate through the reactor with the primary circuit cooling water.”

Both Tritium and Tritiated Water are sources of beta particle radiation. It is suspected that elemental Tritium is the more likely culprit behind the production of Cobalt-58 dust affecting the workers, who would not ordinarily come into contact with the primary coolant.

At the time Eskom spokeswoman Karen de Villiers claimed the exposures to radiation caused by exposure to the dust particles were low, “about 0.5 percent of the annually allowed exposure limit.”

Co-58 has a half-life of 70.86 days, which is the ‘approximate time required for a quantity to reduce to half of its initial value’. The substance is a source of beta and gamma radiation. It would thus take 70 days to become half as radioactive, another 70 days to become a quarter and so on, and is thus radioactive for months.

Elemental Tritium is able to diffuse through metals, particularly in the presence of heat, and is a direct consequence of fission, where production of Tritium occurs in about “one atom per 10,000 fissions” as a direct consequence of the fission process. Tritiated Water (3H2O) is the result of neutron bombardment of water. Tritium has a half-life of 12 years, and a decay chain to Helium-3 (3H).

Although not considered chemically toxic, it is nevertheless a source of radiation, and impacts upon the longevity of the plant, which is nearing its design limits and is due for decommissioning in 2024.

With 2 neutrons and one proton, Tritium loses a neutron during the decay process creating beta particles which then interact with nickel parts inside the plant. Nickel, since it has 30 neutrons, loses a proton and gains a neutron to become radioactive Cobalt-58, which itself experiences its own decay chain.

This is the prevailing explanation for the 2010 contamination incident.

Since the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model of radiation exposure states there is ‘no threshold beyond which radiation should be considered safe’, KAA consequently disputes the baseline findings of SRK Consulting, and thus the drafters of the initial report commissioned by the Pebble-bed Modular Reactor Company, to determine possible impact of the demonstration unit Koeberg.

LNT is a dose-response model used to estimate stochastic health effects such as radiation-induced cancer, genetic mutations and teratogenic effects on the human body due to exposure to ionizing radiation.

The model “statistically extrapolates effects of radiation from very high doses (where they are observable) into very low doses, where no biological effects are observed” and is disputed by members of the Nuclear Industry.

The LNT model is nevertheless the foundation of a “generally-accepted postulate that all exposure to ionizing radiation is harmful, regardless of how low the dose is, and that the effect is cumulative over lifetime.”

The National Nuclear Regulator currently deems anyone who accepts the LNT model, to be ‘opponents of nuclear power’, and thus Peter Becker was recently suspended from his position on the regulator as a civil society representative by Minister Gwede Mantashe.

Climate Justice: Andile Mlambo vs John Kane-Berman

TWO environment pieces illustrate diametrically opposed views in SA: “We are experiencing a climate renaissance in my community, Tembisa, evident by the renewed interest — from the youth, the middle aged and the elderly — in climate issues” writes Andile Mlambo. Meanwhile John Kane-Berman has penned an article which claims “”Climate justice” is a nice term for a set of arrogant, economically damaging, cynical, cruel, and inhuman policies.”

So while Mlambo reports local communities are raising “the banner of “climate justice now” in defiance of the grim face of energy institutions that perpetuate the misconception that those who are not sufficiently pale-skinned neither care about nor understand the effects of fossil fuel emissions — on their health, food security and their fertility.”

The Institute for Race Relation’s John Kane Berman has deemed it fit to speak on behalf of disadvantaged communities, those who are already benefiting from climate aid, claiming that “Africans are being fooled by eco-imperialism”, and that “many South African non-governmental organisations and members of the communications media have bought into “net zero”, which is now the dominant ideology of the Western world.”

As a result, he claims, “They habitually oppose mining development. They want to put a stop to oil and gas exploration. And, of course, they want to shut down Eskom’s coal-fired power stations.”

One could not get more disconnected from the scientific reality of climate heating, nor wrong-headed about our country”s own contribution to the problem. South Africa currently produces more GHG than the UK, a country with double the population. The attempt by Kane-Berman to deflect support for a just transition by attacking the massive R131bn aid package which is the hallmark of Cyril Ramaphosa’s participation in the last COP round, is indicative of a myopic right-wing agenda which sees growing opposition to oil and gas as an opportunity to recast themes once associated with the struggle against apartheid.

Thus Kane-Berman drapes himself in the regalia of Pan-Africanism, whilst trotting out denialist sophistry that serve nothing more than to sugar-coat a propaganda piece on behalf of aggressive oil and gas exploration pursued by the likes of Shell, and recently interdicted by poor black communities living along the Wild Coast.

It should come as no surprise that the exact same form of faithwashing of the oil industry has come from the likes of Gwede Mantashe who recently claimed that objecting to the seismic testing was a ‘special type of apartheid”.

The idea that since the West has benefited from fossil fuel exploitation in the past, South Africa should be given an opportunity to do the same moving into the future, and that ‘net zero’ is simply an ‘ideology of the West’, needs to be dispensed with as a dangerous conceit. ‘Net zero’ is the bare minimum required to avoid global temperatures increasing by more than 1.5 degrees celsius. This is via all estimates garnered by climate scientists representing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body which includes micronations and the rest of the world, not simply “the West”.

One could do a lot better by simply focusing on ‘climate debt’, the debt owed to the world by those who have embarked on fossil fuel exploitation first, instead of advocating for extra time in which to exploit. The past 7 years have been the hottest on record, and the world is about to get a lot hotter.

Both Kane-Berman and Mantashe ignore the reality that what is urgently required is a ‘carbon negative economy’, one which deals with the cumulative impact of GHG emissions over time. In other words, we really should be offsetting our GHG emissions by at least a factor of two to three, if we wish to avoid the catastrophe which is already locked into our own government’s planning around the issue.

It is highly irresponsible and foolish for anyone occupying a position of authority to suggest otherwise.

SEE South Africa’s coastlines are a biodiversity hotspot

Shell Wild Coast : The struggle against whaling has come full circle

SOUTH AFRICA comprehensively banned the practice of whaling in 1979. The campaign to ‘save the whales’ is one of our oldest conservation movements, predating the later environmental justice movement which emerged during the 1980s. This week, Royal Dutch Shell was given the go-ahead to invade traditional whaling habitat on the West Coast during the calving season in order to conduct seismic testing.

The move signals a massive shift in government thinking, from conservation and tourism, sustained littoral zone fishing to outright exploitation of marine resources.

The country is not strapped for cash when it comes to land-based mineral resources, but under former President Zuma, it evolved a plan to carve up the seabed and ocean floor in rights allocations to foreign multinationals.

The so-called “Operation Phakisa” plan produced under the former administration is bereft of reference to sustainable marine fisheries management and climate mitigation. Instead, a document produced by the DTI in 2017, sees oil and gas as the next frontier, alongside ship-building, harbour construction, and logistics operations.

The practice of whaling in South Africa gained momentum at the start of the 19th century and ended in 1975.

“By the mid-1960s, South Africa had depleted its population of fin whales, and subsequently those of sperm and sei whales, and had to resort to hunting the small and less-profitable minke whale. Minke whales continued to be caught and brought to the Durban whaling station from 1968 until 1975.”

The only major whaling population left after the decimation (aside from the Humpback and Minke) was that of the Southern Right Whale. Its population has been steadily falling due to climate change. Numbers measured in 2020 “are the second-lowest in October in the past 32 years, after the extremely low numbers of 2016 (55 pairs)“. 

“The Southern Right Whale is seen along the coastline of South Africa every year between July and December.” The whale has a higher population than its northern counterparts, and is “seen along the coastline of South Africa every year between July and December In fact, there are only a few hundred Northern Right Whales individuals left in existence.”

The whales attract hundreds of thousands of tourists to the so-named ‘Whale Coast’ every year, and thus many people are understandably upset at the prospect of Shell displacing the whale population, whether by seismic testing, exploration or drilling.

The issue however, is not simply that of noise pollution nor its impact upon marine tourism. Although ‘seismic surveys reduce cetacean sightings across a large marine ecosystem” the overall impact of the invasive endeavour on the entire eco-system needs to be taken into account — the very real prospect that we may lose our whales altogether, and along with their habitat, the ecosystem, and that means us.

Alongside the collapse of whale habitat, our fisheries and any hope of a sustainable marine resource.

A review of the potential impacts of marine seismic surveys on fish & invertebrates shows the true extent to which anthropogenic noise in the world’s oceans impacts marine fauna has become a subject of growing concern.

“Available evidence suggests that seismic survey noise may influence the behaviour of cetaceans in a number of ways potentially leading to reduced sighting rates e.g. Long- and short-term displacement …”

The displacement of the Southern Right Whale habitat by Shell’s invasive seismic testing, followed by exploration and potential drilling, demonstrates that the whaling industry that once provided blubber to the lubricants industry is being superseded by the oil and gas industry, and the mammals are seen by our government as a mere hindrance to development.

The result will invariably be extinction.

SEE: Shell’s seismic blasting is a threat to South Africa’s fish stocks and totally out of step with global energy trends

SEE: The huge momentum shift in the story of two environmental campaigns against Shell

Koeberg has a 65 different isotope emissions problem

KOEBERG like many Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) nuclear plants, produces emissions of radioactive isotopes. The resulting ‘effluent’ is routinely released into the environment where it makes its way into the food chain. Annual allowable emissions known as the ‘Annual Authorised Discharge Quantity’ are all authorised by the Department of Energy. In some instances emissions have included unwanted radionuclides, breaching minimum emissions standards. The department monitors ‘some sixty-five radioisotopes found or expected to be found in Koeberg “effluent”

Tritium, a radioisotope of Hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years, is relatively abundant within the plant. According to the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA): “The greatest source of radioactivity in the reactor coolant circuit is, however, irradiation of the coolant itself. Neutron bombardment of nitrogen dissolved in the water gives rise to carbon-14. Moreover, irradiation of boron dissolved in the coolant water creates hydrogen-3, i.e. tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen.”

NIASA boldly claims: “Even if all were discharged at the maximum (AADQ) allowed, and in the impossible event that the critical paths for all the isotopes in the liquid and gaseous effluent irradiate the same local resident, that individual would still receive less than the permitted 0.25 millisievert per year.”

The association further claims “Caesium-137 and sometimes strontium-90 are detected at levels consistent with the background attributable to global nuclear weapons testing largely in the 1960s”.

This contradicts their own findings and studies conducted by independent environmental professionals which have detected long-lived fission products such as the radioisotopes iodine-131 and caesium-137 in plant and sea-life around the installation. Both isotopes do not occur naturally and are produced as a byproduct of nuclear fission. Iodine-131 in particular is a result of fission not weapons testing, and the prevalence of these particles around the plant and not the rest of the country raises questions.

In 2010, 91 workers were contaminated with radioactive Cobalt-58. According to NIASA: “radioisotopes such as cobalt-58, cobalt-60 and silver-110m arise as a result of wear or corrosion of reactor components. They become radioactive due to neutron bombardment as they circulate through the reactor with the primary circuit cooling water.”

These radionuclides are not fission products as such, since the plant was not designed to produce them, and should rather be termed contaminants.

Radionuclides, due to their instability produce radioactivity, resulting in alpha, beta and gamma particle emission. High-energy beta particles disrupt molecules in cells and deposits energy in tissues, causing damage.

The presence of Cobalt radionuclides is particularly concerning since it points to issues which may require the decommissioning of the plant. Cobalt-58 for instance is achieved by irradiation of Nickel, and thus points to the breakdown of stainless steel components within the plant due to increased radiation levels. The decision to extend the life of the plant which was commissioned in 1984 appears to have been made on the basis of a ‘business case’, and not a scope of plant safety issues moving forward.

NIASA explains the effluent and contaminants from the plant : “The radioisotopes in the Koeberg effluent are of two types, fission products and activation products. Traces of uranium (‘tramp’ uranium) may remain on the outside of new nuclear fuel assemblies on arrival at the power station. Moreover, minute leaks may develop in the fuel in the course of operation. Both sources may contribute to fission product isotopes in the reactor cooling water, particularly the more mobile radioisotopes iodine-131 and caesium-137.”

As argued by Koeberg Alert, these fission products bio-accumulate up the food chain, via our wheat, shellfish and dairy. While iodine-131 collects in the thyroid gland, caesium-137 is bone-seeking, (it loves calcium) and may end up in the bone marrow. Eskom disclaims any responsibility for increases in leukaemia and blood cancers caused by exposure to low-dose, long-term emissions from the plant. In addition NIASA fails to explain the cumulative impact of emissions of long-lived radionuclides and appears to operate under the false assumption that every year represents a clean slate.

Half-life is the interval of time required for one-half of the atomic nuclei of a radioactive sample to decay. Thus after that interval, a sample originally containing 8 g of cobalt-60 would contain only 4 g of cobalt-60 and would emit only half as much radiation. After another interval of 5.26 years, the sample would contain only 2 g of cobalt-60 and so on.

The annual allowable emissions from the plant are reported to have been scheduled upwards by the Minister, in order to accommodate Koeberg plant emissions and exceed European Safety Standards.

Here is information on some of the 65 radioisotopes associated with Koeberg and acknowledged by the Nuclear regulator.

Theranos of the Nuclear Industry

THE WORLD has its fair share of prospective ‘revolutionary ideas’, objectives that have failed to pan out. Not for lack of trying, nor because a notion isn’t any good on paper but rather the expression of a thought may not be based upon sound physics, or could be missing a vital technological breakthrough or component. In the case of Theranos, the idea of a portable blood analysis machine was surely innovative, but the underlying technology did not exist and the project failed to deliver. The result is a fraud case involving over-sell — under-performance, gross deception and astonishingly optimistic claims by one Elizabeth Holmes.

Similarly in 2007 the Department of Environmental Affairs held a parliamentary inquiry into the nuclear industry, in particular the much vaunted Pebble-Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) programme whose technology was essentially borrowed from Germany. As it turned out the programme was fundamentally flawed, and was deemed unsafe by the Germany government following a pebble bed reactor accident at Hamm-Uentrop.(1)

At this stage some R10bn had already been spent without so much as a working reactor. Submissions by civil society organisations Koeberg Alert and Earthlife Africa, provided engineering analysis of why Germany had dropped the thorium-uranium programme, in part due to the ‘tendency of the pebble fuel to disintegrate’. Other serious issues included problems of safety, lack of containment, waste fission products and a host of other technical issues.

This didn’t dissuade South Africa’s nuclear industry. Though government input into the programme seemingly ended with Minister Barbara Hogan cancelling further funds, the PBMR took on a new life under Kelvin Kemm, who began touting a gas-cooled version called High Temperature Modular Reactor (HTMR) produced by his own company Nuclear Africa, along with a supposedly ‘new fuel’.

Billions of rands of governmental spend was thus, for all intents and purposes, simply transferred to Nuclear Africa, under the auspice of Kemm who was then chair of NECSA in order to further acomplex prestige project, one which readily leads to economic dependency (see below).

Steenkampskraal Thorium Limited (STL) is a subsidiary company ‘in the business of developing and commercialising thorium as a clean safe energy source for the future.” The STL company site however professes “The primary goal of the HTR fuel development programme at STL is to produce fuel spheres containing uranium for irradiation testing in the short term, thorium/uranium in the medium term as well as thorium and plutonium in the long-term.”

Enter the X Factor, Yet Another Fuel

Meanwhile Eben Mulder and Martin van Staden announced their company X-energy was using a new modular reactor design alongside a brand new fuel. “X-energy has developed the compact Xe-100 reactor, which delivers 80MW of electricity and is about the size of an elevator shaft in a four-storey building,”. They further claim, “the US military has also signed a contract with the company in March to deliver its Xe-Mobile reactors”.

While Kemm’s project certainly has some merit in its purported use of presumably thorium instead of uranium, but certainly fails when it comes to the economics of producing Thorium Dioxide (see below) the X-energy project insists it has developed an advanced new nuclear fuel known as “Triso-X”.

Triso-X appears to be nothing more than a complex “tri-structural isotropic (TRISO) particle fuel” already developed within the nuclear industry. The company thus also claims somewhat disingenuously: “We manufacture our own proprietary version (TRISO-X) to ensure supply and quality control.”

If the claims are to be believed, TRISO fuel may significantly alter the burnup rate of fission products and change the melting of fuel within reactors. It is claimed to “double the previous mark set by the Germans in the 1980s” and thus is ‘three times the burnup that current light-water fuels can achieve—demonstrating its long-life capability.”     

According to pundits “TRISO particles cannot melt in a reactor and can withstand extreme temperatures that are well beyond the threshold of current nuclear fuels.”

A 2020 Nuclear Industry Journal article on ‘Uranium nitride tristructural-isotropic fuel particle’, demonstrates “testing of a novel coated fuel particle, uranium nitride tristructural-isotropic fuel” and claims “this fuel particle offers significantly higher uranium density over historic manifestations of coated fuel particles and may be more optimal for a range of advanced reactor applications”

There is however no consensus in the industry on the resulting fission products produced by the TRISO process impacting upon health and safety, nor the longevity of the fuel. One can only suggest that many of the objections to the latest Thorium-Uranium project, also apply. In fact many of the claims made by X-energy, beg the question, why Thorium?

There is no vaccine for climate change

CLIMATE SCIENTISTS have begun talking about a strategic ‘managed retreat’ as a response to climate change. This retreat they say is not an admission of defeat, but rather entails “a coordinated movement of people and buildings away from risks, which, in the context of climate change, are approaching from numerous fronts, including sea level rise, flooding, extreme heat, wildfire, and other hazards.”

NASA is warning of a growing energy imbalance caused by incoming radiation trapped by greenhouse gas.

This energy imbalance is “the most fundamental metric defining the status of global climate change,” according to a Nature Climate Change article. “Everything else about global climate change” writes Chelsea Harvey—including the warming of the planet—”is a symptom the mismatch of energy in versus energy out.”

New research published in Geophysical Research Letters finds the energy imbalance approximately doubled between 2005 and 2019.

Since I’ve written extensively on environmental issues since the late 80s, when I became one of the founders of our local environmental justice movement, I believe that I may state the following without having to fend off denialists, who label my writing ‘fringe’ and ‘crackpot conspiracy’.

When we talk about a ‘just transition’, we should remember there can be no justice if we are entering a major extinction event, that may include the extinction of human beings, that’s us, within decades. As Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace puts it, “I wake up with a nightmare“.

Many scientists and activists believe it already too late to do anything practical about the looming climate disaster, we are locked in, they say, to mitigation and adaptation strategies that will of necessity include a staged retreat.

A similar question is posed by the “Deep Adaptation” movement. Its guru, writes Simon Kuper in the Financial Times, “gets criticised for overstating the risk of “near-term societal collapse”. But the truth is most of us probably underestimate it.”

One need go no further than the 1 degree change in temperature of the Southern Ocean over the previous decade (reported to the special Parliamentary Session on Climate Change in the run-up to COP17), to understand the dire consequences of the release of tonnes of methane hydrates sitting on the bottom of the ocean, creating an unstoppable feedback loop in our climate systems.

A new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, finds that beneath the surface layer of waters circling Antarctica, the seas are warming much more rapidly than previously known. Furthermore, the study concludes, this relatively warm water is rising toward the surface over time, at a rate three to 10 times what was previously estimated.

Tackle Historical Carbon Emissions

Climate change results from the cumulative buildup of GHGs in the atmosphere over time, not emissions in any particular year.

This is why we must urgently tackle our nation’s historical carbon emissions if we are to have any hope of success in reversing the damage. This means offsetting carbon that has already been released into the atmosphere, and doing it the right way, not simply by cooking the books.

Companies such as Microsoft for instance, have already embarked upon decarbonisation plans. The company will not only be carbon negative by 2030 but plans to erase its historical carbon footprint, capturing an amount of carbon equivalent to what it calculates is all of the carbon it has emitted since it was founded in 1975.

South African corporates have been slow to step up to the challenge. Two of the biggest GHG contributors over the past century have been and continue to be Sasol and Eskom — both represent GHG hotspots from outer space.

The Carbon Majors Project is an example of correct quantification of fossil fuel companies’ historical emissions.

Arctic heatwaves, melting permafrost, and Canadian fires do not make for great headlines. The retreat of our civilisation and end of democracy as the Earth becomes less habitable, may just do the trick.

Instead of accepting ministerial lip-service and cowtowing to markets, in effect negotiating our way into 2 degree plus climate change, we should be discussing drastic GHG reductions and urgent decarbonisation. Reductions not simply towards parity — neutrality or zero future carbon emissions, presumably offset on a 1:1 basis –, but actions to tackle historical offsets, at very least on a 1:3 basis or 1:5 basis.

In other words, a carbon negative strategy, for every 1 tonne of CO2 we produce, South Africa should offset by at very least 3 tonnes, reducing our emissions by an order of magnitude. In this way, instead of a ‘staged retreat of civilisation’, we might accomplish a GHG retreat, even a reset of the ‘energy imbalance’, thus stalling the need for solar shielding interventions and other untested technology.

Despite all the data pointing towards a worst case scenario, South Africa remains trapped in a tedious political debate surrounding a ‘just transition to renewable energy’, as the government drags its heels with a phased approach to the introduction of a carbon tax whose mitigation offsets are not immediately clear.

The country has yet to quantify its historical contribution to global GHG, and the project of auditing represents a challenge to researchers and mathematicians.

Then again, the country has yet to introduce any incentives for the manufacture of electric vehicles and is locked into the internal combustion engine. Many of the plans for the so-called Special Economic Zones, are centred around coal and mineral resource extraction.

What is clear, is the resulting energy imbalance from our country’s GHG contribution is steadily shifting our climate towards a catastrophic collapse of the holocene period. A geological measurement which has defined human habitat for millennia.

As a banner unfurled at Ascot on Sunday reads: We are racing to extinction. And along with it, the extinction of our own democratic freedom struggle.

Questions need to be asked

Is the promise of carbon offsets just another political vaccine, a stratagem to dampen activism without delivering the goods?

How do we know the carbon tax money is not being used on fruitless and wasteful expenditure?

How can we trust the result will not end up before yet another Zondo Commission?

Readers need to urgently question the assumptions made by our government, and especially the whereabouts of an independent monitoring mechanism, one that would need to monitor our nation’s contribution to GHG offsets. Reporting to parliament without delay.

Published in Green Times

Greens should challenge notion that banks determine “Environmental Leadership”

In 2016, ‘two men pretending to be police officers’ murdered Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe the founder of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, an environmental group opposed to mining in Umgungundlovu in Eastern Mpondoland. 

In November this year, Fikile Ntshangase, deputy chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, was assassinated amid ‘claims of death threats and bullying by those in favour of the expansion of Somkhele Coal Mine, which requires the relocation of 21 families, which Ntshangase opposed’.

Instead of releasing paid advertising promoting their house brand, one would have expected WWF and others, to stand up in solidarity against the slaughter of environmentalists. The latest round of ‘leadership’ material glosses over the fact that environmental justice leaders are being killed and assassinated as we speak.


South Africa’s environmental justice movement originates in the tumultuous period in which organisations such as End Conscription Campaign were being banned. In particular, Earthlife Africa arose as a broad movement for environmental justice which broke terrain by being inclusive of human development and issues affecting ordinary black citizens. 


Having linked the environment to apartheid and its deleterious effect on our climate and habitat, environmental justices activists such as myself, took to the streets in successive waves of protest action over the decades. However it is abundantly clear that bankers and financiers are seeking to control this narrative by a strategy of ‘electing’ leaders within the movement.

A newsbrief posted this past month bluntly states:  ‘WWF Nedbank Green Trust environmental leaders graduate internship programme has been dedicated to developing the leadership capacity of graduates who want to contribute to a better environment’.

WWF is an organisation co-founded by apartheid financier Anton Rupert, the man responsible for creating a National Party sponsored cabal which continues to ignore the massive contribution of organisations such as Earthlife Africa, Environmental Justice Network and allied organisations.


In 2018 ELA national director Makoma Lekalakala was named co-winner of the prestigious Goldman Award alongside Liz McDaid of SAFCEI, a Southern African multi-faith institute addressing environmental injustice. Unlike ELA, SAFCEI is considered inside of the fold of the WWF Nedbank alliance. It took a foreign award to recognise the achievements of both parties.

Banks and corporate South Africa need to be told that they while they are free to support environmentalism, promoting their own favourites as ‘leaders’ whilst ignoring the immense sacrifice of persons such as Fikile Ntshangase and Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe, is nothing more than a gross form of greenwashing, paid propaganda exercises calculated to deflect attention away from obvious holdings in oil, gas and fossil fuel.


Similarly, environmental activists need to be called to account for failing to raise solidarity with the Mfolozi Commmunity. We must take a stand on democratic accountability within the broader environmental justice movement. Leaders should be elected and accountable to membership of their organisations. Fund-raising should be transparent and open to member scrutiny.

COVID-19: Our People’s Health is an Environmental Issue

SOUTH AFRICA is one of the few countries to have secured the right to a healthy environment alongside the right to health in its constitution, yet it took the crisis of a global pandemic for apartheid-era hostels in Alexander township to be deep cleaned. As our own Department of Health moved to contain the spread of COVID-19, questions were being raised as to why the Minister had waited so long, and why had the Department of Health (DOH) not acted with similar vigour during previous TB and Pneumonia epidemics?

As the nation went into lock-down, many found cause to question the apartheid spatial planning which meant that black South Africans were disproportionately affected by problems related to access to food, lack of water, sanitation and ablution facilities. As one mother put it, ‘Our family share a single tap with four other households, social distancing is problematic for us.’ While most white folk were hunkering down in luxury apartment blocks, the poor were being relegated to townships and informal settlements where little has changed during the democratic period.

The cause is a virus which many scientists believe has come to the fore because of the same underlying factors effecting climate change. One should talk here about the ecology of disease.

“The interconnectedness of our globalised world facilitated the spread of COVID-19. The disruption this continues to cause has made evident societal dependence on global production systems,” says Vijay Kolinjivadi, a  post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp.

He observes a disjuncture in our response to the double crisis: “Although both COVID-19 and climate change are rooted in the same abusive economic behaviour and both have proven to be deadly for humans, governments have seen them as separate and unconnected phenomena and have therefore responded rather differently to them.”

“While we do not get daily updates on the death toll caused by climate change, as we do with COVID-19, it is much deadlier than the virus.”

Although a lot has been made about animal rights and the beneficial decrease in pollution caused by the pandemic, the result of what researchers such as Kolinjivi see as a ‘positive degrowth’. Now is not the time for complacency on air standards, emissions and climate change.

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland writing with Daya Reddy, President of the International Science Council, says: “The COVID-19 threat has shown that governments can act swiftly and resolutely in a crisis, and that people are ready to change their behavior for the good of humanity. The world must now urgently adopt the same approach to the existential challenge of climate change.”

In South Africa the ruling party has instead utilised the pandemic as an opportunity to escape commitments made during successive UN Conference of the Parties (COP) rounds. Readers awoke last week to find that Gwede Mantashe, had published new amendments to the Mineral Resources Development Act (MPRDA) on the first day of the Covid-19 emergency lock-down in order to escape accountability, while air pollution standards had been gutted, enabling Eskom and SASOL to double sulphur emissions.

There is palpable fear amongst activists, that in focusing on the pandemic, the nation will lose its impetus on climate change alongside its civil liberties.

“The disruption brought on by Covid-19 could reverse efforts made by governments thus far to reduce carbon emissions to tackle the climate crisis. What is needed is a way to connect the two calamities to capacitate a sustainable revival in the aftermath” writes Luveshni Odayar, a Machel-Mandela Fellow at The Brenthurst Foundation.

It is therefore imperative that we view public health (literally the people’s health) as an environmental issue, in the same way that apartheid was linked to the struggle for environmental justice by myself and others, back in the 1980s, resulting in the emergence of Earthlife Africa and other activist formations.

In fact the two health struggles, that of the public in general (and body in particular), and that of the environment at large, are so closely interlinked and intertwined, that they cannot be seen as distant relatives.

Whether food security, urban and peri-urban spatial planning, climate change or coronovirus, the rights of all citizens to live in harmony with nature, while enjoying quality of life, free from disease and illness is non-negotiable.

The result of this crisis must be an expanded concept of health and health-care-for-all, and thus a public policy which encompasses physical well-being as much as it does the Earth. That it has taken a virus to make us all aware of this deep connection, can only be seen as one of the positive lessons to be drawn from the pandemic.

Our recovery and future is dependent upon making this profound realisation a reality, and thus a yardstick which motivates and drives our country.

Towards an African, humanist environmentalism for South Africa

IT WAS during the dying days of apartheid, that I wrote a series of articles promoting ‘ecological sustainable development’ and deep ecology. The pieces published by Grassroots and South Press were extraordinary, the least of which is that they were published by a working class imprint shortly after the state of emergency.

They dovetailed my criticism of race-based conservation efforts by elements within the regime, for example the Rupert Family, and addressed perceptions that the emergent environmental justice movement in the country was, to put it crudely, an all-white affair.

The result was the ‘First National Conference on Environment and Development’, in which academics and activists from all quarters joined hands on a broad eco-justice platform which included both the ANC and PAC, and which resulted in the placing of Earth Rights at the centre of our Constitution, in the form of article 24.

Today’s political pundits Carilee Osborne and Bruce Baigrie , conveniently ignore the history of environmentalism in South Africa, preferring to situate their respective struggles within the contemporary milieu of the Climate Strike — the recent Cape Town March which saw some 2500 people from various organisations and civic structures take to the streets in what they view “as one of the largest environmental protest actions in South Africa’s history.”

This is no mean feet and without wishing to downplay the successes of these epic events during the course of the past year, one should always remember that the environmental justice movement arose as a foundation stone of our Constitution during a period of mass democratic action, the likes of which have yet to be repeated. And thus a struggle which was situated not upon my own writings, nor the writings of any one particular individual, but rather the Freedom Charter, which (within the colour of the time) called upon people black and white, to “save the soil”, whilst sharing the land, and assisting the tillers of the land.

A similar mistake in historical proportion and misreading of history occurs within the various articles penned by one Farieda Khan. She writes in “Environmentalism in South Africa: A Sociopolitical Perspective”, (an otherwise excellent paper written over the turn of the millennium): “The first extra-parliamentary political organization to commit to a formal environmental policy was the Call of Islam, an affiliate of the United Democratic Front (the South African front organization for the then-banned African National Congress).” She goes on to state: “The Call of Islam had a formal environmental policy since its inception in 1984, due in large measure to the efforts of its founder, Moulana Faried Esack.”

If only history were so convenient as to claim environmentalism on behalf of any one religion or individual, whether Islam, or the Church, as many within SAFCEI and SACC would have it, or on behalf of one or more important groups or class formations formulated by those on the left, as those within AIDC would have us believe. (Please read Roger Hallam, XR Rebellion founder criticism of the failings of the so-called radical left).

Rather, I think it more accurate and best to take a broader arc of history — one that includes the Freedom Charter and its appeal to ‘save the soil’, and reaching forward to the essential humanism espoused by the deep ecology movement of the 1970s, whose distinguishing and original characteristics are its recognition of the inherent value of all living beings: “Those who work for social changes based on this recognition are motivated by love of nature as well as for humans.” And by extension, as much of my writing and published work from the 1980s suggested, an African environmentalism which realises that Ubuntu is not simply being human because we are all human, but rather, a common humanity contingent upon the necessary existence of our habitat, without which we could not exist as a species.

Instead of situating the environmental movement within so-called ‘working class’ struggles, or working class factions as Osborne and Baigrie attempt in “Towards a working-class environmentalism for South Africa”, and thus the binary of a grand populism vs narrow neoliberalism, a binary which simply perpetuates the idea of man’s dominion over nature and thus a struggle which of necessity is juxtaposed alongside the authoritarian grip of party politics, another path must be found.

It is all too easy to issue anti-capitalist prescriptions, leftist directives and cadre-based imperatives calling for the end of free markets whilst, forgetting that it is Eskom’s captive market, Eskom’s socialist ambitions, and Eskom’s coal barons which have pushed South Africa ahead of the UK in terms of GHG emissions, a country with 10-15 million more people. Although only the 33rd largest economy, South Africa is the 14th largest GHG emitter in the world. Our national energy provider, Eskom has yet to adopt GHG emissions targets.

All the result of  the boardroom compromises of the statist, authoritarian left, whose policies have seen our country embrace ‘peak, plateau and decline’ alongside a COP-out strategy excluding South Africa from the Paris Agreement, and thus a national environmental policy which is not based upon empirical science and evidence-based research but rather class driven kragdadigheid and Big Coal.

If those on the far left expect us all to reject secular humanist values alongside Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess who introduced the phrase “deep ecology” and thus an environmentalism which emerged as a popular grassroots political movement in the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, simply because these persons are lily-white, or tainted by the liberal economics of the West, then they are sorely mistaken.

Instead, I believe, that it is far better to formulate an African-centred response, and rather a Pan-African struggle which is broad-based and inclusive of our collective humanity and common habitat. Such a broad-based struggle out of necessity includes an African-Centered Ecophilosophy and Political Ecology.The draft Climate Justice Charter is one such vehicle and deserves our full support.

The struggle for survival during the collapse of the Holocene, includes those already involved in conservation and preservation efforts and those who now join because of concerns about the detrimental impact of modern industrial technology. When one talks about climate justice we thus need to include the voices of those who have not been given an opportunity to speak, and remember that without mass mobilisation, nothing would have changed during apartheid.

Dear Extinction Generation

IT WAS June of 1991, the apartheid government had just unbanned political parties such as the ANC and PAC, exiles were returning to the country, and negotiations towards a new democratic dispensation were in full sway. The First National Conference on Environment & Development, organised by myself and my colleagues from the Cape Town Ecology Group (CTEG) and World Council on Religion and Peace (WCRP) was being held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

It was here that the campaign to include sustainable development in our country’s new constitution came to a head, with a mandate to ‘ecologise politics and politicise ecology’.

Solly Skosana of the PAC was of the view that ‘land apartheid had not disappeared and that a constituent assembly was the only mechanism in which environmental concerns over land distribution would be able to be addressed.’

There was consensus among delegates that unequal land distribution was a major cause of environmental problems in South Africa and that the land itself needed protection under the law.

Speaking on behalf of the ANC, Cheryl Carolus criticised the lack of political involvement by environmentalists in the past and made the point that her decision to get involved in politics had ‘arisen out of a desire to empower herself and to regain control over her environment.’

The issue of workers’ involvement in environmental issues was taken up by Nosey Peterse of the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) who told delegates: “You can talk about environmental degradation but while you talk workers are losing their jobs because of environmental degradation.”

It was here too that I stood on a podium alongside Mike Kantey of Earthlife Africa, Ebrahim Rasool of WCRP and Julia Martin of CTEG, with delegates from across the political spectrum, to rally against apartheid while calling for a future in which the needs of future generations would not be compromised by the demands of our own generation.

As the conference drew to a close, we had no inkling of the dire consequences our nation would be facing today, with water shortages, air pollution and threatened ecosystems, nor did we realise back then, what it would take. Our actions back then simply introducing article 24 of our Constitution, enshrining Earth Rights, to impact and affect climate change and the lives of those yet to be born.

It was thus a twisted and tortuous politics which saw successive appointments of environmental ministers, from then Minister of Environment General Magnus Malan, to Dawid de Villiers, Pallo Jordan, Valli Moosa, Marthinus van Schalkwyk and Edna Molewa, each taking the credit for the groundbreaking inclusion of ‘ecological sustainable development’ in our nation’s constitution, and yet collectively responsible for the allied policies of the ruling party. Despite becoming the first country to include the environment in its bill of rights, the party proceeded to pave the way for mega coal projects, increasing of GHG emissions and lowering of air pollution standards.

You can read about the campaign to put Earth Rights into South Africa’s constitution here.

At the same time that the Mbeki administration was hosting the 2002 WSSD (the acclaimed “Earth Summit’ which produced very little of real substance) the ANC was promoting a crackpot policy sans physics which became known as ‘peak, plateau and decline‘. A neat phrase cooked up by the DEAT to describe a strange new political compromise between our constitutional imperatives, ‘the needs of the future’, and the diktat of the fossil fuel industry, in particular the opportunities (read curse) presented by our own country possessing abundant supplies of coal.

Thus when Min Gwede Mantashe opened a new colliery, while myopically claiming: “our vast coal deposits cannot be sterilised simply because we have not exploited technological innovations to use them,” he was articulating this self-same policy. It describes the apparent trade-offs to be made — ramping up our GHG in the short to medium term, so that we are on par with the West economically speaking, before reaching an abstract ‘plateau’, whereupon we will by some act of the imagination, decline our GHG profile (perhaps via slight of hand and creative accounting) — the introduction of a Carbon Tax, is yet unproven.

Every year, the time frame for the plateau and reduction of local GHG targets has been shifted, while the much vaunted Carbon Tax is slow on the uptake and still being implemented. The Climate Change Bill introduced in 2018, focuses on mitigation and adaptation as opposed to implementing a drastic about turn in energy policies.  Bare in mind the Carbon tax is an economic charge which Greenpeace has said, will not be ‘effective enough and far from adequate’.

Every policy decision thus far made by the ruling party, has been on the basis of the bad maths of these mantras introduced without much scientific consensus, and there is no precedent.

After negotiating a COP-out deal at Paris, which has allowed our country to continue with business as usual — South Africa’s pledge under the Paris Climate Agreement is ranked as “highly insufficient” — we are left with a Promethean struggle involving several massive coal mega-projects versus the reality of today. At 510.2377 mtCO2e pa our GHG profile is currently on par with the UK, a country with a population of 66 million people, as we begin to exceed the West in air pollution. Our country has been criticised internationally for “ delaying the development of policies to cut emissions.

It is thus with some sadness and poignancy that I read a letter addressed to our president and signed by some 50 local environmental organisations, demanding ‘an emergency sitting of Parliament to deliberate on the recently issued UN report on 1.5°C increase in planetary temperature and its implications for South African climate change policy.’

This while 300 kids marched from Parliament to the City Hall in Cape Town last Friday, to hand over a memorandum demanding government take “immediate action on the climate crises”. Following a mass demonstration on 15 March where thousands of school learners protested, calling on government to act against climate change. In various parts of the Free State, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, where “youth collectives are meeting to learn about climate justice and organise, “writes Alex Lenferna

“Outside of the Union Buildings, young people rallied and delivered a petition to the president calling for climate justice now.”

Instead of declaring a climate crisis, President Ramaphosa, has chosen to skedaddle and bamboozle with stats and an unhelpful allusion to the climate problem during SONA. The government clearly lacks any real programme to deal with the crisis. This is not the first time that the ruling party has attempted to colour itself with the revelry of the green movement.

Stating that the President’s  ‘recognition of the climate crisis is the first step to fundamental change“, as a 17-year-old environmental activist Ruby Simpson does, is expecting a serial climate change denialist, to suddenly get science and find Gaia, because the reality is our nation’s policy of ‘peak, plateau and decline‘ is founded upon a tragic denial of the existential threats facing our planet and its people.

Regrettably, one can only express skepticism of presidential lip-service, uttered with pro-coal cynicism — successive ANC Presidents and their cabinets have shown themselves to ‘talk green, but walk with coal’. One has only to witness the abject failure of the President to address the detailed requirements of a ‘just transition’, and thus his startling refusal to acknowledge the implicit question of ‘whose justice?’

Without an immediate adoption of a climate emergency, articulated by the 2011 Durban Declaration, there can be no justice. And without a complete u-turn in our energy policies, there will be no future for our country.