South Africa’s Finest Wave Under Attack

Wave Under Attack From The Department Of Minerals And Energy

There is a war being waged in J-Bay over the proposed building of a nuclear power station. Surfers, residents, and environmental groups in the area have joined forces and plan on challenging South Africa’s sole energy provider, Eskom, legally over the proposed Thyspunt Nuclear power plant, situated right next door to the iconic Cape St. Francis and less than 12 miles away from J-Bay.

It’s no secret that Eskom, the country’s power parastatal, needs to double its existing power capacity within the next 18 years to keep up with estimated demand, or South Africans could well be left rubbing sticks in the dark. In order to meet this quota, Eskom has reverted to site recommendations made 30 years ago for five potential locations along the SA coast to erect nuclear power stations. The alarm bells started to ring loudly for surfers when this was made public in 2007, and for good reason. Three of the sites selected for possible development are home to excellent waves and pristine ecosystems, and one of these locations is Thyspunt – a mere 6 miles from Cape St. Francis.

The government would ultimately like to develop all the proposed sites, but right now, it’s Thyspunt that’s sitting firmly in the crosshairs as the pilot location. Eskom is pushing for development to start around 2011 and be completed by 2018. This alone would set an unprecedented record for the time it takes to build a nuclear power plant (the global average is 12-15 years minimum) and already raises worrying questions about the seriousness of the planning process. But it’s far more than an unrealistic timeframe that has the public up in arms.

According to an original statement from the Supertubes Surfing Foundation, an environmental watchdog for the J-Bay region, the proposed Thyspunt site poses a “real threat” to the world’s best right and its immediate community. Nuclear plants require a massive and readily available supply of water to cool the condensers. A major concern is the effect this will have on the quality of the seawater around Jeffreys Bay, which will be used for cooling and then returned to the ocean.

“We are not satisfied that pumping heated water back into the ocean will have no impact on sea life and water quality in the Jeffreys Bay area,” says Tyrone Smith, chairman of the Foundation.

The Foundation’s position is backed up by extensive studies carried out in the United States, where the abalone population near Diablo Canyon in California was nearly obliterated by heated water being returned to the ocean in a similar scenario. Besides the spinning right hand tubes, anybody who’s rubbed shoulders with a chokka (squid) fisherman at a J-Bay watering hole will know fishing is a key contributor to the local economy. The area earns a significant chunk of foreign revenue through the export of calamari, as well as its thriving tourism industry. The Foundation is adamant that deterioration in water quality and the impact on the surrounding areas from extensive construction would have a “disastrous effect” on these pillars of the economy.

The recently submitted Draft Environmental Impact Assessment for the development of Thyspunt “is a joke,” according to the umbrella organization of the Thyspunt Alliance Group, and has become the focal point for opponents to rally around.

“The glaring errors, shortfalls and omissions in the Environmental Impact Assessment are being smoothed over by corporate propaganda and sidestepping,” says Cheron Kraak, former head of Billabong SA who has filed as an Interested and Affected Party. “This will carry on happening unless somebody does something about it now.

The group have mobilized to take Eskom to task with hard evidence proving that their process and plan is flawed, and therefore unlawful. Aside from a number of embarrassing schoolboy errors like getting the prevailing wind direction wrong, or conveniently claiming the distance between Thyspunt and the nearest community of Cape St Francis is more than 16 kilometers (10 miles) away, when it is in fact 10 kilometers away, the EIA fails to cover critical areas like disposing of nuclear waste, or providing essential detail and design specs for the type of nuclear facility that will be built. Experts have further slammed the draft EIA for being “fundamentally flawed” with regard to the impact it will have on the immediate environment, and the proposed method for piping water has also raised serious concerns.

The Thyspunt plan proposes the construction of undersea tunnels up to 1.2 miles long to supply water for cooling and pumping back heated water. The planners have obviously never sat in the car park at Seal Point as a cold front sweeps past. If they had, they’d know that the brutal winds and raging swells that accompany these regular frontal systems are bound to throw a heavy wrench in the works.

In a preliminary report compiled by Glenn Ashton from Ekogaia Consulting to assess Eskom’s nuclear plans, it’s stated that: “There is a complete lack of detail in how the pipeline for the intake and exhausts are to be constructed, how they will be secured to the sea bed, or any other such detail.”

Ashton claims that these omissions make it impossible to come to any sort of informed conclusion as to the impacts, safety, and security of the construction of a plant like Thyspunt – the whole point of an EIA process.

He goes on to explain, “There has never been any similar scale of undersea construction undertaken in South Africa. We must remember that all three of these [proposed] sites are situated on some of the highest energy coastlines in the world, which face the full power of the high latitude anticyclones of southern ocean. These are amongst the most powerful storms on earth, far more powerful than tropical hurricanes. The energy from these storms makes the likelihood of securely constructing the proposed pipelines extremely challenging, which may be why the consultants have failed to provide any detail.”

One detail that has been provided though is how much sand will be getting pumped into the ocean: It’s estimated that 6.3 million cubic meters of sand and sediment will need to be cleared during construction. The sediment is to be pumped between 1.5 to 2 km offshore, in water with a depth of 50 meters plus. This is to prevent compromising the squid population that supports the squid industry. But fishermen and squid experts claim they regularly catch squid at depths of 60 meters plus, and this is another gnawing bone of contention.

The sheer volume of sand is what’s worrying surfers particularly. Besides posing a real threat to the area’s thriving marine ecosystem, 6.3 million cubic meters of sand travelling in a northeasterly direction toward Seal Point and J-Bay could have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. Nobody wants to see Supers potentially turned into a beachbreak.

The Thyspunt controversy is bristling with charged emotions and conflicting information. We all know we need energy to power our lives and nuclear is arguably a preferable option to coal-fired power stations (the argument for renewable energy notwithstanding), but is such an ill-considered location really the answer? Especially from a parastatal with such a dismal track record in foresight.

As Kraak explains, “This area has been economically sustained by the squid and tourism industries. Ironically these two industries will stand to lose the most if the development is approved.”

Standing on the iconic boardwalk at Supertubes and feeling the planks tremble as a wave rumbles down the point, you can’t help but be blown away by the potent energy of the place. If only engineers could effectively tap into that beautiful natural power source unloading down the point, rather than put it at major risk.