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Do we really need a nuclear smelter? March 1, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa.
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Do we really need a nuclear smelter?

(This column was first published on 2013-02-25 at News24 here)

Since its birth, the nuclear industry has been beset by a number of intractable problems, among them its propensity to produce an ever-growing mountain of radioactive waste that nobody really knows what to do with for the very long periods of time that it will remain dangerous.

Our very own state-owned Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) thinks it’s found the solution for 36 000-odd bits and pieces of atomic scrap metal at its notorious Pelindaba site near the Hartbeespoort Dam, about 30 kilometres west of Pretoria: melt it down in a smelter.

If that sounds like a somewhat dubious idea to you, you’re not the only one. A number of environmental organisations and residents’ groups have raised serious concerns about the project, which has been on the cards for years without ever really attracting a whole lot of media coverage.

Necsa has applied for a Nuclear Installation Licence from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) for the construction and operation of the smelter facility, and some observers believe that it will be issued shortly.

As taxpayers, we should certainly be concerned about the estimated R20m which is about to be spent on a questionable attempt to clean up the remains of apartheid’s toxic A-bomb mess.

The proposal

Over the years, Necsa has accumulated some 14 000 tonnes of waste metal “lightly” contaminated with uranium. About 70% is steel, the rest is aluminium, copper, brass, nickel, cast iron and bronze and almost all of it comes from the decommissioning of uranium enrichment facilities at Pelindaba, the place where South Africa’s atom bombs where developed, built and stored.

Necsa’s plan is to melt all of this metal down in an induction furnace using crucibles with a capacity of 1500 to 4000 Kg per load, expecting to process all of the material over a period of about ten years.

Approximately 98% of the uranium currently contaminating the metal will concentrate in the slag when it’s melted. This slag will be sealed in drums and eventually stored at the national nuclear waste site at Vaalputs in the Northern Cape.

According to Necsa the recycled metal will only contain about 1% of evenly distributed uranium once it’s passed through the smelter, making it clear for “release” onto the market. Not my kind of recycling, to be honest (mental note: check ingredients next time you buy a new frying pan).

The remaining 1% of uranium will be “available as off-gas” which will pass through a filtration system capable of removing more than 99.9% of it. The amount released into the atmosphere will be well below the allowable limit and “the environmental impact will therefore be insignificant”. So says Necsa.

The problems

At a public hearing, hosted by the NNR in Centurion last October, the Pelindaba Working Group’s Dominique Gilbert enumerated various criticisms, including the following:

– Waste incinerators are notorious health and environmental hazards, potentially generating toxic compounds and particulate matter that are difficult to confine.

– Necsa has contracted a controversial Swedish company called Studsvik to help with the design of the smelter, but Studsvik had a complaint of criminal negligence filed against it in 2007 when their bid for a similar smelter was scrapped in the US, allegedly for deliberately failing to follow regulations.

– The NNR does not have the technical or financial capacity to regulate a facility such as this.

– Radioactive smelter projects have a poor track record worldwide, with a number having been shut down as a result of public pressure and successful litigation.

– Experts have expressed serious concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the so-called HEPA filters which are to be used to remove uranium from the smelter off-gas.

– Necsa has refused to consider alternatives, like encapsulating the waste and storing it in a sealed building on site.

I for one don’t like Necsa’s neat little plan for using taxpayers’ money to invest in highly contentious and potentially dangerous technology for cleaning up a nasty mess that the vast majority of us would not have allowed ourselves to get into had we ever been given the choice. How about you?

Heavy metal is bad for you February 6, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa.
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Heavy metal is bad for you

(This column was first published on 2013-02-04 at News24 here)

I don’t have a problem with Metallica, Iron Maiden or even Ozzy Osbourne. It’s the original heavy metal villains, the chemical elements that inhabit the nether regions of the periodic table, that I’d prefer to keep out of my bloodstream. But in our industrialised world, that’s becoming ever harder.

We’ve managed to liberally spill these unhappy by-products of our machine culture all over the planet with some rather detrimental effects. Two of the nastier members of the clan – lead and mercury – have been in the news lately.

Journalists Kevin Drum and George Monbiot have summarised intriguing research which suggests a causal link between lead pollution and violent crime. This disturbing relationship is the result of the now largely abandoned use of lead in paints and petrol.

Chemical analyses of the growth rings of trees chronicle the story of the lead we’ve spewed into the air. When tetraethyl lead was introduced as a performance-enhancing additive to petrol in the early 20th Century, levels in tree rings started to rise. As the unhealthy side-effects became apparent and the practice was phased out beginning in the 1970s, measured values peaked and then declined. But we’re still dealing with the legacy.

While excessive lead exposure can result in gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and kidney problems as well as many other ailments in the general population, children are most at risk, even at low levels. For them lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, growth impairments and behavioural issues including ADHD, aggressiveness and violence.

Studies have shown that in many areas, violent crime peaked about 20 years after lead pollution was at its worst as those who were poisoned by it in infancy reached maturity.

Efforts to remove lead from paints and petrol, though too late for many, were certainly effective. Which is not to say that lead pollution is a thing of the past. The Blacksmith Institute ranks lead-acid battery recycling and lead smelting as the first and second most significant global pollution problems, potentially affecting over 150 sites and as many as 3.5 million people in developing countries.

In the case of mercury we’ve only just begun to clean up our mess with a legally binding, albeit flawed, UN treaty to reign in the pollution.

From Victorian England’s famous mad hatters to well-documented pollution events at Minamata in Japan and Cato Ridge in KwaZulu-Natal, it’s not as though we haven’t known about the problem for a long time. Better late than never, I suppose.

According to the latest figures from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), artisanal small-scale gold mining is now the largest single contributor of mercury pollution in the world, accounting for around 37% of anthropogenic emissions in 2010. Next are fossil fuel combustion, predominantly by coal-fired power plants, metal and cement production, waste incineration and others.

After it’s emitted into the atmosphere, where it spreads around the globe, mercury (which is also released by natural sources such as volcanoes, hot springs and erosion) is oxidised, deposited on the earth’s surface and converted into toxic methyl mercury (MeHg) by bacteria. MeHg is bio-available, meaning that it’s absorbed into the bodies of animals that ingest it, and accumulates especially in the marine food chain with apex predators like tuna, swordfish, sharks, seals, beluga whales and polar bears ending up most contaminated.

Humans predominantly absorb mercury by eating fish and seafood – in the US, this accounts for 90% of all MeHg exposure, 40% of which just from tuna. From there a sorry litany of health defects, from brain damage to blindness, ensues. In the EU, as many as 2 million babies are born with long-term IQ deficits every year as a result of mercury poisoning.

Although the extent and impact of mercury pollution have not been exhaustively investigated in South Africa, we are certainly part of the problem. Our coal-burning power plants alone are estimated to emit 39.4 tonnes of mercury per year – not an insubstantial portion of UNEP’s estimate for annual global emissions (1960 tonnes).

Makes me wonder exactly how much mercury pollution I caused by turning on my PC this morning to write this article. One thing’s certain though: guitar-based hard rock has caused nowhere near as much damage to the planet as lead, mercury and the other toxic escapees from civilisation’s smokestack.

Fracking, climate change and greed February 6, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Fracking, Global warming, South Africa.
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Fracking, climate change and greed

(This column was first published on 2013-01-29 at News24 here)

The global fracking boom is gaining momentum. It’s in full swing in America. China, a country with shale gas reserves comparable to those of the USA, is preparing to establish its own massive fracking industry. The British government has recently lifted an earlier suspension of fracking activities and green-lighted a controversial new gas generation strategy. In South Africa, we’re ready to join the fray.

In trying to persuade us that these are positive developments, the oil and gas industry would have us believe that shale gas produced by fracking is:

a) a low-carbon energy solution that generates less greenhouse gasses (GHGs) than other fossil fuels,

b) a bridging fuel to a future low-carbon economy, and

c) an invaluable tool in the fight against climate change.

Each of these assertions deserves some scrutiny.

A low-carbon fossil fuel?

While shale gas, just like conventional natural gas, burns more cleanly than oil or coal, there is considerable scientific debate over whether it has a smaller carbon footprint than other fossil fuels when all the stages in its production are taken into consideration.

In the first peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from fracking wells, a group of researchers led by Cornell University professor Robert Howarth argued that such wells leak up to twice as much methane, a much more potent GHG than CO2, than conventional gas wells, resulting in emissions comparable to those associated with coal. These results have been disputed by a number of other scientists, but Howarth has defended his findings, stating “that for most uses, the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years”.

A new study has brought into question the rate of methane leakage in natural gas fields in general. The authors found that as much as 4% of all the methane produced at a field near Denver disappeared into thin air – that’s about twice the rate claimed by industry. At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, they presented additional data from Colorado and Utah suggesting leakages of up to 9%. These measurements exclude any losses from pipelines and distribution systems.

The figures are important: in April last year, scientists showed that electricity generated by burning natural gas only has immediate climate change benefits if the total leakage from production is below 3.2%.

A bridging fuel?

Shale gas could only possibly be considered as a transitional source of energy to a low-carbon economy if there was, in fact, an unbridgeable gap that needed crossing. There isn’t and the argument is a red herring.

Numerous reports have shown that currently available renewable energy technology is perfectly capable of satisfying most if not all of our power requirements by 2050. A small recent sampling includes studies by the US National Energy Laboratory, some of Europe’s most distinguished renewable energy experts and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The transition to a cleaner, low-emission economy based on renewable energy sources – with which we are richly blessed in SA – requires political will, not a push to exploit more fossil fuels.

A weapon against climate change?

Instead of saving us from global warming, shale gas stands to push us over the edge.

According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012, no more than a third of the world’s proven reserves of all fossil fuels – not just shale gas – can be consumed before 2050 if we’re to have a 50% chance of constraining average temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels and maintain a reasonably stable climate. More conservative estimates argue that, to be safe, 80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.

The bottom line is simple: if we dig up all of the shale gas beneath our feet, the planet fries.

That should be a good enough reason not to, but to the oil and gas companies the stuff simply represents profits waiting to be liberated. If you believe they will stop drilling holes into the ground before they’ve got it all or before the weather turns nasty, you’re dreaming.

A refreshingly honest summation of the industry’s greedy rationale by Professor Terry Engelder, a geologist at Pennsylvania State University, published in Nature in 2011 says it all: “Fracking is crucial to global economic stability [read “money in our pocketses”]; the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks”.

January 24, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, South Africa.
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We’ve got too much coal

(This column was first published on 2013-01-21 at News24 here)

If you’re under the impression that the age of coal is over, you’d better think again. In December, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report which forecasts that coal will challenge oil as the world’s biggest source of energy within the next five years. With China and India taking the lead, IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven announced that we will be burning about 1.2 billion more tonnes of the black stuff in 2017 than today – “equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined.”

South Africa is right in the middle of the global coal industry. In fact, we have way more of the stuff than is good for us: some 28 billion tons of proven reserves, which at the current annual mining rate of around 253 million tons will only be depleted in 110 years.

“That’s a good thing!” you might say. “After all, much of this country’s industrial economy and wealth were built on the back of easily accessible, cheap coal.”

There have been some massive downsides too, however, including air pollution, acid rain and a per capita carbon footprint rivalling those of many developed countries. About 70% of the coal mined in South Africa is used domestically and approximately 70% of that is burned in power stations to generate almost all of our electricity. Most of the rest (20%) is turned into synthetic petroleum products by SASOL.

The pesky fact that our coal-burning habit has us pumping huge quantities of climate-changing CO2 into the atmosphere every year is becoming a major headache.

In international climate change negotiations, the SA government has committed itself to doing its share to keep average global temperature rise to below 2oC compared to pre-industrial levels, a figure that may prevent run-away climate change – if we’re lucky. Government endorsed a set of Long Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS) for transforming the economy to achieve this goal.

In its National Climate Response White Paper published in October 2011, government announced that within two years, carbon budgets would be drawn up for those sectors of the economy that emit significant quantities of greenhouse gasses. These carbon budgets will define the emissions allowable under the 2oC regime.

Based on one of the scenarios included in the LTMS – the one “required by science” to make the 2oC target – WWF-SA has estimated a total greenhouse gas emissions budget for the country for the period from 2010 and 2050 of about 16.4 GtCO2e (gigatons of CO2 equivalent), meaning that during those 40 years, we can afford to emit greenhouse gasses equivalent to a grand total of 16.4 billion tons of CO2 if we want stand a decent chance of maintaining a reasonably stable climate. This figure includes all of our emissions, not just those due to coal.

So how does our coal industry stack up in this calculus? Not well at all, I’m afraid.

A recent report compiled by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and commissioned by WWF calculates that at current rates, a total of at least 19.2 GtCO2e of South African coal reserves will be used locally between 2010 and 2050. In other words, if we carry on as we are now, just the coal we’ll burn during this period is going to produce the equivalent of nearly three billion more tons of CO2 than we’re aloud to emit if we are to stay within our climate-safe budget.

And those are conservative figures. SA coal miners, including Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Exxaro and SASOL, are investing in the development of their as yet unproven coal resources. If only a third of these actually come into production, the report says, this would add another 19 GtCO2e of emissions.

I for one am intrigued to find out exactly what share of the national carbon budget government is planning to allocate to coal by October this year. The bottom line is simple though: if our coal industry continues to operate as it is now and if we as a nation remain shackled to it, our chances of making an effective contribution to halting climate change are zero.

A fairer deal November 22, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Column, South Africa.
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A fairer deal

(This column was first published on Nov 21 2012 on Fin24 here)

The severity of the bloody conflict between striking farmworkers and police in the Hex River Valley and elsewhere has come as a shock to many South Africans.

The clashes are the result of disputes over working conditions and pay, which remain desperate in many parts of the country’s agricultural sector.

It turns out that when it comes to more equitable farm labour systems, there is already one in operation which represents a viable alternative to the conditions that brought about what’s happening in De Doorns right now.

It’s called Fairtrade.

I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t many South African farmers who treat their workers fairly and pay them a decent salary, or that farmworkers shouldn’t organise and unionise themselves. Far from it.

In fact, I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to this situation, but in times of crisis it’s imperative to look for ways of doing things differently and I believe that Fairtrade is one such option.

The Fairtrade movement originated in Europe in the 1990s with the intention of enabling small farmers in the developing world to compete equitably in global markets increasingly dominated by giant multinational companies and unjust trade rules.

In South Africa it now has a small, but dynamic and growing presence.

I recently interviewed workers from three Fairtrade-accredited wine farms, one near Stellenbosch and the other two in the Breede River Valley, not very far from De Doorns.

All of them expressed the sentiment that Fairtrade had changed their lives, as well as those of their families and communities, for the better.

Some of the benefits they mentioned include the fact that:

– strict Fairtrade labour standards have led to better conditions and working hours;
– relations and communications between workers and management have improved; and
– Fairtrade health and safety regulations have meant the provision of appropriate protective gear and procedures, for example when handling hazardous agricultural chemicals.

In addition to improved working conditions, workers benefit from the so-called Fairtrade development premium. For every bottle of Fairtrade wine sold, about 50 cents go to the workers, who decide democratically how this premium money is to be used.

On the farms I visited, the premium has been used, among other things, to:

– equip workers’ houses with solar water heaters and satellite TV;
– buy a bakkie and a minibus to provide transportation for members of the community;
– build a crèche and pay the teachers’ salaries;
– build a food kitchen;
– pay for school fees, uniforms and stationery;
– build a community centre;
– tile the bathrooms in workers’ homes;
– pay for the college education of older children; and
– contribute to workers’ retirement funds.

But the positive effects haven’t just been material or monetary.

The workers told me that the need to collectively decide about what to do with their Fairtrade premium money, while not always being easy, had brought their communities together and had improved the situation of women who are equal to their male counterparts in the decision-making process.

Self-esteem has been raised – several workers mentioned no longer being ashamed of being farm labourers when visiting town on the weekend, and one suggested that he had observed more moderate drinking habits among his colleagues who now had more to look forward to in life than before Fairtrade.

A recurring theme among the people I spoke to was that Fairtrade had opened doors for their children, who, often for the first time in generations, had the opportunity of receiving a better education than their parents and finding jobs off the farm.

Fairtrade is already well established in South Africa and it should be straightforward for farmers who want to get involved to apply for accreditation.

And as consumers, Fairtrade allows us to vote with our rands by, for example, choosing Fairtrade wines the next time we’re in the liquor store to pick up a bottle or two.

UCT Fracking Panel Discussion May 19, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Fracking, South Africa, University of Cape Town.
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Don’t trust Shell April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa.
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Don’t trust Shell

(This column was first published on 2011-03-30 at News24 here)

Shell wants us to believe that in exploring for and extracting natural gas from underground layers of shale in the Karoo using the polluting and extremely water-intensive technique of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, they have all of our best interests as well as those of the environment at heart.

They must also think us the most gullible halfwits this side of the Niger Delta.

In a recent full-page newspaper ad, the multi-billion dollar oil giant’s Bonang Mohale writes passionately about his company’s “commitments to the Karoo”, promising not to despoil and pollute it in the way fracking has been documented to mess up formerly pristine landscapes and water sources  elsewhere. He describes natural gas as a “more environmentally friendly” option and a “cleaner energy source” and twice refers to its role in building a “sustainable energy future”.

Pure greenwash! In 2008 the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled Shell’s use of the word “sustainable” in an ad about its involvement in extracting oil from Canadian tar sands “misleading” and in violation of industry codes for “environmental claims”, “substantiation” and “truthfulness”. The same standards ought to apply here.

In complete contradiction to their PR-laced public utterances, Shell has an atrocious environmental and human rights record, as even a cursory glance into their skeleton-packed closet reveals:

• In County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, a fishing and farming community has been fighting a protracted battle against Shell’s plans to build a pipeline and gas refinery that has involved violent clashes with police, hunger strikes, arrests, and masked men beating up local activists and sinking an outspoken opponent’s fishing boat.

• In 1995 Greenpeace activists stopped Shell from sinking the Brent Spar oil platform, laden with tonnes of toxic and radioactive waste, at sea.

• Shell has a long and sinister history of environmental destruction and human rights abuses in Nigeria. More than a thousand oil spill cases have been brought against the company in the Niger Delta, where it continues to illegally flare natural gas, a practice that causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined. Long implicated in bribing local officials and politicians, WikiLeaks cables reveal that Shell inserted employees into all main ministries of the Nigerian government and “knew everything that was being done in those ministries”. Shell is deeply implicated in the Nigerian government’s 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 fellow environmental and human rights activists and in 2009 agreed to pay their families $15.5m as a “humanitarian gesture”.

• Environmentalists have warned that Shells’ Sakhalin II oil and gas operations in Russia will contribute to pushing the critically endangered Western Pacific Grey Whale towards extinction.

• Shell has plans to drill for oil just 30 kilometres from Western Australia’s ecologically sensitive Ningaloo Reef and off the coast of the USA’s fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

• Shell has contributed more than a million dollars towards defeating legislation to set goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California.

• Shell is coming under increasing pressure from environmentalists, indigenous communities and its own shareholders over its extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada, which involves strip mining large swaths of forest and wetlands and uses and pollutes vast quantities of water while generating at least five times more carbon emissions than conventional sources of oil.

If Shell were a person, we’d have no hesitation in recognising this list as the shocking resume of a sociopathic career criminal whom we’d never let anywhere near our homes or children. We cannot afford to trust them with the Karoo.

Note to Shell: Even in the extremely unlikely event of you being able to convince us that you are capable of producing gas in the Karoo without wasting and polluting our water, we wouldn’t want you to. We don’t even want you to explore for it. We want you to leave the gas in the ground. The age of carbon-based fossil fuels – of coal, oil and natural gas – is coming to a close and until you propose to help us develop our abundant, clean, green and truly sustainable renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power, stay out of the Karoo.

A farewell to nukes April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa.
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A farewell to nukes

(This column was first published on 2011-03-16 at News24 here)

I’ve had it with nuclear power. And I’ve had enough of nuclear pundits telling me how cheap and clean and green and low-carbon, oh and yes, how safe it is.

Repeated hydrogen explosions at Fukushima Daiichi, the stricken Japanese nuclear power plant; engineers scrambling desperately to stop several plutonium reactors from melting down by using “innovative” (read “improvised”) techniques; a spent fuel storage pond on fire; radioactivity being released into the atmosphere; and traumatised politicians who keep enlarging the evacuation zone look anything but safe to me, not even from half a world away.

Claims that under the circumstances Japan’s nuclear installations have done remarkably well and that things could be much worse and could never get as bad as Chernobyl don’t fill me with comfort either. How bad do things have to get for them to be disastrous? Just ask the tens of thousands of people who’ve been evacuated from their homes around Fukushima.

I have no time for nuclear engineers who assure us that their reactors were designed to cope with the worst possible case scenario and then complain that they were not prepared for the severity of this particular combination of natural calamities – a more than puzzling admission in a country as prone to large earthquake and tsunami double whammies as Japan.

It constantly amazes me that people whose entire industry is based on quantum mechanics, which itself is all about statistical probabilities, can so habitually overlook the fact that even catastrophic natural events with exceedingly low probabilities have a nasty tendency of happening unexpectedly.

And don’t tell me that we’re completely safe from earthquakes in South Africa. The Milnerton earthquake (estimated magnitude: 6.3) which struck the West Coast 200 years ago may have been much weaker than the latest Japanese shaker (magnitude 9.0), but its epicentre was also much closer to the location of Koeberg, currently our only atomic energy plant. The most recent environmental impact report for a further nuclear plant at Koeberg suggests that, taking into account statistical errors, the seismic risk could be significantly higher than the rating typically used in nuclear plant designs.

While nuclear accidents in various parts of the world are blamed on earthquakes, tsunamis, human error by incompetent operators and flawed, previous-generation reactor designs, we’re forever asked to believe that it can’t happen here. Which is exactly what the people of Fukushima believed until a few days ago.

I haven’t even mentioned the environmental havoc caused by uranium mining (think radioactive streams in the Witwatersrand), the health hazards associated with every-day operation, the ever-present threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, the fact that nuclear energy is neither carbon-neutral nor a panacea for climate change, or that nobody really knows what to do with the high-level waste accumulating worldwide which will remain dangerously radioactive for a very long time.

The time to argue that we need nuclear power because it causes less environmental damage and loss of lives through pollution and climate change than energy generated by burning oil, coal or natural gas has come and gone. The implication that our only energy options involve either carbon-based fossil fuels or nuclear power is a red herring.

In fact, the best reason why we should give up on nukes is simply that we don’t need them. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that the lion’s share, if not all, of our electricity needs can be met cost-competitively by truly green, long-term sustainable and renewable energy sources including solar and wind power.

In South Africa, the nuclear industry has the ear of government and unless we start shouting our opposition we’ll soon have more nuclear power rather than less. It’s on the cards and it will happen unless we stop it.

Now is the time to consign this dangerous and out-dated technology to the dustbin of history. We should have abandoned nuclear power after Three Mile Island in 1979. We should have outlawed it after Chernobyl in 1986. And we should most definitely get rid of it for good after Fukushima in 2011. Enough is enough.

Who cares about rhinos anyway? April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa.
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Who cares about rhinos anyway?

(This column was first published on 2011-03-09 at News24 here)

Last year’s furore over organised rhino poaching elicited widely contrasting responses from South Africans. Bunny-huggers turned into rhino-huggers by their hundreds and declared the crimes bad enough to warrant the re-institution of the death penalty.

Others considered the outrage over the illegal hunting of a couple of glorified zoo animals as overly emotional and insignificant in a country plagued with many bigger problems from chronic poverty to large-scale unemployment.

It might sound disingenuous, but as far as I’m concerned both of these opinions contain a kernel of truth (although, rhino-huggers, you’ll never get my vote on the death penalty…).

The survival of a single endangered species like the rhino is insignificant in the sense that it merely represents the tip of an iceberg of animals and plants that are threatened by extinction, not because of the nefarious operations of a few crime syndicates, but because of our own activities. Yours and mine.

We should care about butchered rhinos in the hope that such high-profile incidents will put the spotlight on the much, much larger, global crisis of biodiversity.

So today’s take-away phrase is mass extinction. The one we humans are currently in the process of precipitating.

Brand new species usually evolve at more or less the same rate as others die out, keeping overall biodiversity at a relatively constant level. When die-offs outpace new arrivals too rapidly, however, mass extinctions literally change the face of the earth by almost wiping the biological slate clean.

Periods of major mass extinction in which 75% or more of the earth’s plant and animal species disappear forever are natural phenomena that have occurred five times in the geological past, the most well-know example being the cataclysmic event that killed off the dinosaurs and many other species about 65 million years ago.

Exactly what causes such extinctions has been hotly debated by scientists for decades. Clearly it’s complicated, but the main culprits are asteroid or comet impacts and volcanic eruptions on a scale big enough to make Eyjafjallajökull (the Icelandic volcano that grounded Europe’s commercial airline fleet last year) look like the geological equivalent of a pimple. The fossil record also suggests that extinctions tend to be more common during relatively warm, “greenhouse” phases of the earth’s history compared to the cooler “icehouse” periods.

Today, some researchers are predicting that we’re on course for a sixth mass extinction. About a fifth of all vertebrate species are currently considered “threatened”. Increasing numbers of freshwater fish, shark and ray species, reef-building corals, turtles, birds, amphibians, insects and plants are heading for the evolutionary exit. Get ready to wave good-bye to the Sumatran rhinoceros and orang-utan, the Philippine crocodile, the mountain gorilla, the red wolf, the western gray whale and many more critically endangered animals.

This time round the causes are much less ambiguous than they are for previous mass extinctions. No asteroid or comet. No infernal volcanic outpourings. Just us humans causing climate change, habitat loss, deforestation, pollution, over-fishing and spreading invasive species and disease.

A new study published in the scientific journal Nature last week confirms that extinction is happening between 3 and 12 times faster today than would be expected if there was no crisis and that we can expect a new mass extinction with unpredictable consequences within as little as 300 years unless we act now.

And that’s why we shouldn’t just dismiss rhino poaching as a liberal non-issue and also why we shouldn’t fetishise media-friendly species like the rhino at the expense of the rest of the endangered biosphere.

Forget the schmaltzy appeals to help ensure that your grandchildren live to see rhinos in the wild or even the argument that humans have a moral obligation to preserve the other life forms with whom we share our planet – although personally, I’m rather partial to both of those arguments.

Help to save the rhino and all the other species for the entirely unemotional and selfish reason that we simply can’t afford to lose them. Our economies, our livelihoods and our own long-term survival as a species literally depend on them for food and medicine, to pollinate our crops, purify our water, oxygenate our air and fertilise our soil.

Gasland Karoo April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Fracking, South Africa.
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Gasland Karoo

(This column was first published on 2011-02-16 at News24 here)

I have seen the future of the Karoo and it looks grim.

No, I haven’t turned clairvoyant overnight, but I did just watch Gasland, the Oscar-nominated documentary about extracting natural gas from underground shale formations in the United States.

In most cases, the extent of environmental disasters only becomes apparent with hindsight, when it’s too late. On precious few occasions do we get an inkling of what environmental impact an activity is likely to have because others have done us the dubious favour of acting as guinea pigs. By highlighting the devastating effects a hideously messy gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is having in the US, Gasland affords us a chilling vision of what is going to happen to the Karoo if Royal Dutch Shell and others, who have started to explore for gas shales in the region, have their way.

When an oil and gas company offers Josh Fox, the film’s director, nearly $100 000 to lease his piece of land located above the huge Marcellus Shale Formation in Pennsylvania, he sets out on a cross-country tour that opens his eyes to the dangers of fracking. The technique, which involves injecting millions of litres of water, sand and a cocktail of toxic chemicals into boreholes at high pressure to release natural gas trapped in layers of gas shale as tiny bubbles, was developed by the American company Halliburton.

In 2005, then US Vice President Dick Cheney, who just happened to have been Halliburton’s Chairperson and CEO between 1995 and 2000, helped to push an Energy Bill through Congress that exempted the activities of oil and gas companies from the existing Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and various other environmental laws and regulations. Known as the “Halliburton loophole”, this opened the floodgates on one of the most destructive episodes of natural resource exploitation in history.

Confronted with some 450 000 fracking wells in 34 states, Fox documents a litany of complaints from people living near gas drilling operations: domestic groundwater wells contaminated with natural gas, fracking chemicals and other toxins; farm animals losing hair and weight; chronic headaches and more debilitating human health problems; hazardous air pollution; open wastewater pits; hugely increased truck traffic; mini refineries, pipelines and storage facilities at every well site; natural gas bubbling from formerly pristine creeks; and, perhaps most notoriously, several households whose tap water can be set alight. We can look forward to all of these in the Karoo!

The gas industry doesn’t think there’s a problem. Fracking is adequately regulated, poses no real threat to underground drinking water, doesn’t need to be investigated any further and reports to the contrary are incorrect, they say. Pro-drilling groups like Energy in Depth have gone as far as writing a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences telling them that Gasland should be ineligible for a best documentary feature Oscar, prompting Fox to publicly defend the validity of his film in a point-by-point rebuttal.

There are several parallels between what has happened in the US and what may well happen in the Karoo: stunningly beautiful big-sky landscapes, sparsely inhabited by salt-of-the-earth type people, sitting on a petrified ocean of gas billions. If American regulators were unable to protect their citizens and environment from an industry that’s clearly under-funded in the moral conscience department, what are our chances of saving the Karoo from a similar fate?

In the words of Lisa Bracken, who appears in Gasland:

“The corporate business model is to come into an area, develop it as fast as you can and if you trash anything you make the people who you impact prove it. You make ‘em argue it in a court of law and the last person standing gets bought off and you move on.”

It’s not too late to prevent the Karoo from turning into another Gasland. The time to stop this unique, ecologically fragile, historically, archaeologically and geologically invaluable national treasure from being trashed for a few dirty gas dollars is right now!