Burning coal causes deaths and illnesses

In South Africa our household and industrial electricity is supplied mostly by Eskom, the state-owned public utility established in 1923 as the Electricity Supply Commission.

According to Eskom, South Africa’s sources for electricity generation in 2015 were 83% coal, 5% nuclear, 4% independent power producers (IPPs), 4% imports, 3% gas turbine, and 1% other.

Electrical energy supply is measured in derived units called kilowatt-hours, abbreviated as kWh. On average, for every 1kWh of Eskom electricity generated,
1kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) gas is produced and 1.4 litres of water is used.

In 2016 the average household in South Africa used
335kWh of electricity a month, which is around 250 billion kWh in total for the year. This means we emitted 250 billion kg of CO2e and other serious pollutants into our atmosphere and used 350 billion litres water just to bring power to our homes.

Why is burning fossil fuels a problem? A 2013 health impact assessment estimated that in South Africa air pollution from burning coal could cause around 6000 deaths, 60 000 major illnesses and 3.5 million minor illnesses. Besides affecting the air we breathe, the pollutants also mix with moisture in the atmosphere to make acid rain, which causes environmental damage to forests and lakes.

South Africa is also a water-stressed country with annual rainfall almost half the world average. Indeed Cape Town is currently in the midst of a drought and experiencing significant water supply issues. Then does it really make sense for us to cause so much harm and use so much water when making our electricity?

South Africa has one nuclear power plant, Koeberg in the Western Cape, which is said to be a cleaner and more efficient way of producing electricity. Some people in our national government are pushing for more nuclear reactors to be installed around the country to meet our future energy needs, but worldwide, nuclear adoption is on the decline. This is partly due to the very high costs of building nuclear power plants and also the safety concerns.

There have been quite a few nuclear disasters where nuclear reactors have leaked or exploded, such as at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and more recently Fukushima in Japan, which spilled large amounts of radiation into the ocean in 2011 following an earthquake.

Nuclear power has been around since the 1960s and is a well-established and reliable source of energy that can be installed on a par with coal and oil. However, the provision of the uranium fuel and the need to store or dispose of the high, medium and low-level radioactive waste does produce pollution and definitely increases costs.

The high level nuclear waste can remain radioactive for a million years and needs to be securely stored for that time. Given the dangers, there are also very high costs asso-
ciated with decommissioning a nuclear plant. For example, it is estimated that just to decom-
mission the Dounrae and Selafield nuclear plants in the UK will cost around £150 billion, or nearly
R2 trillion.

Given these concerns, all of us should be questioning whether nuclear really is the way forward.

Next week we’ll look at some other clean energy generation technologies.


1. Which of the following is not a fossil fuel: coal, oil, liquid petroleum gas?

2. What does Eskom stand for?

3. What is an IPP?

4. True or False: in South Africa 83% of electricity is produced from burning coal.

5. Approximately how many litres of water are needed to produce 1kWh of electricity?

6. If your home used 750kWh of electricity per month, how much CO2 will be emitted into the atmosphere (a) in a month and (b) in a year?

7. Where is the city of Fukushima and what happened there in

8. Why is exposure to nuclear radiation harmful?

9. Where is high level nuclear waste usually stored?

10. What does it mean to decommission a nuclear power plant?


1. None of the above

2. Eskom – Electricity Supply Commission (Kommissie in Afrikaans)

3. An IPP is a non-public independent supplier of energy for sale

4. True

5. 1.4 litres

6. (a) 750kg and (b) 9000kg

7. Japan – the nuclear reactor was damaged after an earthquake

8. High doses penetrate your body causing lasting damage to cells and whole organs

9. Underground, encased in concrete and far from where people live

10. Safely remove and store the used fuel, and dismantle the reactor for no further use.