Exhibition | Nuclear power and spaces

This online visual project examines how landscapes, humans, plant and animal species as well as objects exist in relationship to the Koeberg nuclear power station and Cape Town.

My photography explores the intersection between environmental and social justice issues. My work is unapologetically political in nature and seeks to challenge dominant discourses by providing alternative framings of these issues. I see my photography as a counterpoint – if not antidote – to the “slick” and “clean” corporatised “greenwash photography” that powerful interests use to narrate their version of the interaction between humans and the environment, which takes place in the nonsensical, endless quest for economic growth regardless of the consequences. 

As a researcher and photographer working on social and environmental justice issues, this online exhibition is the culmination of specific academic, activist and artistic work I have undertaken to raise awareness of the problem of nuclear power within the context of a just energy transition in South Africa.  

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The project examines the Koeberg nuclear power station and its relationship to Cape Town. It adopts historian Gabrielle Hecht’s notion of “nuclearity”, which explores, among other things, how landscapes, spaces and objects that are “nuclear” or part of the “nuclear energy complex” are often “hidden” from citizens because of their apparent banality. And yet, like the demarcation of emergency accident zones, these spaces, places and objects are in a constant state of potentially “becoming” something inimical to life.  

The project documents “nuclearity” in and around Koeberg and Cape Town and emphasises the almost entirely rhetorical role played by the emergency planning zone (EPZ), which extends 16km in radius around the reactor site. Emergency plans, including for evacuation, are supposed to be implemented within this zone in the event of a serious accident at Koeberg.

An unpredictable threat

But radiation does not, of course, behave in a way that can be managed by “health and safety” discourses in which linear relationships between the distance from Koeberg and levels of contamination are implied. The spread of radiation is influenced by the unpredictability of winds, flow of rivers, movement of groundwater, tides of the sea, absorption rate of animals and plants, types of soil and a whole host of other variable factors. 

It cannot be “managed” by simply drawing lines on maps and declaring one area safe and another unsafe, as the exhibition shows. As sociologist Barbara Adam notes, radiation has outgrown the “limiting frameworks” of linear cause and effect in classical science because it perforates both “spatial and temporal boundaries”. Rather than offer a way to control and manage a serious accident at Koeberg, the EPZ is conceived to do little more than, in Susan Sontag’s words, “distract us from terrors”. 

The Cape Town municipality vehemently opposed the construction of Koeberg in the 1970s because health officials considered the site to be far too close to the city. Archival research located planning documents relating to urban development around Koeberg. These show that both the city and Eskom wanted to restrict urban development in the EPZ. Despite this, nearly 200 000 people now live inside the zone. In the exhibition, some of the archival documents are layered over photographs of significant urban development around the reactor site, revealing how commercial interests have trumped the health interests of the citizens of Cape Town.

Cape Town as seen from the boundary of the 16km urgent protective planning zone. A major accident at Koeberg could potentially result in the evacuation and abandonment of major portions of Cape Town for decades, if not centuries. (Pinhole camera)

I use both digital and film in my photographic practice because of their respective aesthetic qualities. Various photographic techniques were used to represent “nuclearity”. A pinhole and an instant camera were used to indicate the speed with which a “landscape of becoming” can take on a terrifying new radioactive meaning, one that is likely to last for centuries. Images were also taken with old camera lenses from the 1960s that were coated with radioactive thorium oxide (an everyday example of “nuclearity”) until health concerns saw them banned in the 1970s. Various photographic and Photoshop techniques were also used to try to “see” or represent radiation, something that cannot be detected with any human senses, and to represent the secrecy that surrounds nuclear power.

This online exhibition should be considered in the light of Eskom’s decision to extend the life of Koeberg by another 20 years beyond its original decommissioning date of 2024, as well as the government’s determination to build more nuclear reactors at the Koeberg site and elsewhere after 2030. Just as the rest of the world is turning away from nuclear power because of its dangers and excessive costs, South Africa seems intent on embracing its intergenerational toxicity.

A sign for the 3 000ha nature reserve that surrounds the Koeberg nuclear reactor site. The reserve can be seen as an attempt to normalise the potentially disastrous. (DSLR camera with thorium lens)
Koeberg power station with a background texture that was taken from a photograph of a wall inside the Fukushima exclusion zone. (Fukushima Texture Pack, 2016; digital SLR camera and Photoshop)
Twenty-two billion litres of seawater are used to cool Koeberg every year. This heated water generally flows south where people regularly fish. (iPhone camera)
The inner ring is the 16km ‘urgent protective action planning zone’ to be implemented in the event of a serious accident at Koeberg. The others are exclusion zones imposed after the accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl. (Image via Google Earth Pro)
The Bellville Velodrome will become a ‘mass care centre’ in the event of a serious accident at Koeberg. This assumes that radiation will not contaminate the area. (Instant camera)
A warning sign preventing access to the shoreline to the south of Koeberg nuclear power station. Citizens who trespass beyond the sign risk arrest and a maximum prison sentence of a year. (Digital SLR camera)
The banality of greenwashing nuclear power as expressed in a bench at the viewing area at  Koeberg’s visitor centre. (Digital SLR camera with thorium lens)
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