Nuclear necropolitics in South Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Jo-Ansie van Wyk

13 February 2024

Why is a political scientist interested in waste you might ask. 

“Political and public matters concern me as well as social and environmental justice,” said Jo-Ansie van Wyk of the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa (UNISA). “Waste is a defining feature of our human race. Nuclear waste, in particular, has a life beyond its immediate existence and needs to be contained. It’s causing an effect on the lifecycle health of the planet.”  

“I’m asking who is exposed at this waste site and why,” she added.  

STIAS Fellow Jo-Ansie van Wyk during her seminar on 8 February 2024

Van Wyk explained that apartheid South Africa produced six nuclear weapons, which it dismantled on the eve of the country’s democratic transition – on 24 March the country will have been nuclear-weapon free for 31 years. However, besides weapon development, apartheid South Africa’s techno-nationalist project also included the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station (30 km north of Cape Town), a research facility, Pelindaba, (30 km west of Pretoria), a nuclear weapons test site, Vastrap, in the Kalahari Desert, and a nuclear waste-disposal site, Vaalputs (in the Northern Cape Province, 520 km north of Cape Town); all state-owned and operated. Van Wyk’s seminar examined South Africa’s nuclear-energy programme specifically focusing on the Vaalputs (literally muddy well) waste-disposal site.  

“I grew up close to the facility I’m describing,’ she said. “The area is part of my formative years. So, the work is also about laying the ghost inside.” 

She explained some aspects that interest her – existential issues like the biological processes that are arrested, terminated or impacted by waste; planetary global and local health; human and animal health and the potential to prevent or manage future pandemics; socio-environmental justice aspects like dispossession, benefits, exposure and access; the unique character of radioactive waste; big business and big science; who gets what, when and how; South African governance issues; and, the nuclear imagination. 

Van Wyk highlighted the history of South Africa’s nuclear programme including the discovery of uranium in the Witwatersrand in the 1880s; the impact of World War II and Smuts’ involvement in the development of the atomic bomb; the establishment of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1944; the 1965 inauguration of the SAFARI-1 reactor by Verwoerd and the decision to develop nuclear weapons; the launch of Koeberg in 1982;  the first waste consignment to Vaalputs in 1986; the 1993 termination of the nuclear-weapons programme; and the current extension of Koeberg – “New processes are likely to be announced this year – but is it stable, is the infrastructure still good and what about the need for a new disposal site?” asked van Wyk.  

“The three pillars of the Treaty on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons are disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful use. In this history South Africa has been guilty of all three. Now we only want to promote peaceful use,” she said.  

“With oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency globally and domestically by the National Nuclear Regulator,” she added. She also pointed out that the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights – Marcos Orellana – emphasises vulnerable people, the science-policy interface, international regulatory mechanisms and human rights issues in this regard.  

Van Wyk also explained the different types of nuclear waste – ranging from very low-level, short-lived waste considered safe after a few 100 years and buried near surface encased on concrete or metal and shielded; intermediate level waste – which is covered in concrete and bitumen and buried ten to hundreds of metres underground; and, higher-level waste which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years and is currently stored on-site at Koeberg and Pelindaba.  

Vaalputs is a near-surface depository (eight to 10 metres or four times normal grave depth) for the disposal of low- and intermediate-level waste. It receives about 500 low-level and 150 intermediate-level waste drums per year. Koeberg is estimated to produce 32 tonnes of spent fuel annually. But, Van Wyk added, as these are national key points the data are hard to come by.  

She described the technologies of control at the radioactive waste-disposal facility including access control, and surveillance via satellite tracking, dosimeters and geiger counters. “There is also environmental monitoring and research but the local community has no access to it, and publicly the state only addresses matters prescribed in the Act.”  

Politics of life and death 

Referencing the work of Michael Foucault, Achille Mbembe, Giorgio Agamben, Gabrielle Hecht and Becky Alexis-Martin, Van Wyk is exploring the notion of nuclear necropolitics in South Africa. 

Necropolitics is a sociopolitical theory of the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die. Cameroonian historian and political theorist Archille Mbembe was the first scholar to explore the field outlining that necropolitics creates deathworlds in which populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead. Mbembe identifies racism as a prime driver of necropolitics which is often discussed as an extension of biopolitics, which French philosopher Michel Foucault used to describe the use of social and political power to control people’s lives.  

“Biopolitics is about state control over life under state sovereignty,” explained Van Wyk. “To preserve life the state deems liveable it applies certain technologies.”  

“Necropolitics is about the state’s preoccupation with death often using racism to determine death and deathscapes for the living. While nuclear necropolitics is about nuclear energy in state-society relations, nuclear imperialism, and layers of power and subjugation in nuclear communities.”  

“On-site storage and geological depositories of radioactive waste are instances of violent spatial ordering,” she continued. “Space is not neutral or empty – the siting of the placement and its implications for people is important, as well as the relations existing or created in and between spaces.”  

‘Communities around these disposal sites are often designated as either a host community or a sacrifice zone giving it a secular and sacred, but also profane, identity. Moreover, the spatial appropriation of the site becomes a type of utopia (necrotopia) for the state. In some instances, communities and society respond to the technologies of bio- and necropower, and politics. I link the spatial and temporal dimensions of the Vaalputs community as a necropolitical site that has been idealised (i.e. a necrotopia) and normalised (as a ‘host’ community) by the state.” 

“It’s about the designation of places, objects and hazards as nuclear and the lives that make peace with it or resist.”  

World-class to burial site 

Vaalputs was initially presented as a world-class, hi-tech site – the Rolls Royce of nuclear-disposal activities – and as a way to improve employment and educational opportunities for the community but this hasn’t happened. And although there have been protests, court cases and parliamentary submissions, many have lost the will to fight over the years.   

“Vaalputs has essentially become a burial ground. The power is generated elsewhere but the waste deposited there.” Something that has been depicted in poetry and art including the deeply haunting 2007 Study for the Vaalputs Madonna by the artist Helmut Starcke. 

Aspects Van Wyk highlighted include that the road to Vaalputs is in bad condition with many accidents and the surrounding community isn’t informed about the schedule of the deliveries; and of unconfirmed changes in water quality and cancer-incidence rates in the nearby town of Pofadder.  

She described the lack of civil society oversight of the processes or research and choreographed meetings in which the community is told “the science says” without allowing them to access it.  

“In this very contested, closed space, the government controls the narrative, jobs and development. Officials don’t answer the difficult questions,” she continued. “I’m not saying the science is questionable, but the authority awarded to it and lack of attempts to allow community understanding of it is problematic. The community needs to be able to question the science.”  

“The acquiescence and normalisation is very disturbing, It’s a slow intergenerational death of body and mind in a landscape of risk and toxicity highlighting issues of power, justice and coloniality.” 

“The facility is over-capacity, so we need more, larger sites. Where will government choose?” she added. “Anywhere will be controversial. But public conversations and active citizenship are needed.”  

“The current approach to nuclear power is not compatible with democratic transparency,” she concluded. “We shouldn’t continue to strongarm communities. Trust building, openness and accountability are needed.” 


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Noloyiso Mtembu

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