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Pro surfer probes nuclear power plans

Kyle Thiermann traveled to South Africa to film a short film about proposed nuclear power plant. Bevan Langley

Kyle Thiermann -- pro surfer, environmental activist, and creator of the website and film series "Surfing For Change" -- recently released his latest project: an eight-minute short highlighting the debate over a proposal to build a nuclear power plant in Thyspunt, South Africa, roughly 25 miles southwest of the legendary point break Jeffrey's Bay. Closer still sits Cape St. Francis, the wave first lionized in 1966 in "The Endless Summer."

Thyspunt, in Eastern Cape province, is one of four sites Eskom -- South Africa's primary energy provider -- has targeted for nuclear energy development. According to its figures, Eskom supplies 95 percent of South Africa with electricity (and 45 percent of that used in Africa entirely). However, the utility company operates only a single nuclear plant, in Koeberg, north of Cape Town. Eskom began the application process for Thyspunt in 2009.

Concerns over the safety of nuclear energy and its environmental hazards have not subsided, especially in light of the Fukushima Daiichi plant meltdown after the March 2011 tsunami that struck Japan. Immense dunes exist on the proposed site at Thyspunt. And meltdown fears aside, locals worry that displacing large quantities of earth during construction will deteriorate water quality. The result, Thiermann says, are adverse affects to the economy.

"They're going to move massive amounts of sand into the ocean, and it's going to suffocate the seabed right where the squid industry is," claimed Thiermann, who said he found little support for the plant when he visited Jeffrey's Bay. "They don't want it there. They know there are alternatives."

Attention has also turned to how the plant would affect wave quality in the region. Surfers across the world travel to find waves from Cape St. Francis to Jeffrey's Bay to Durban. The Association of Surfing Professionals descends annually on Jeffrey's Bay in July -- midway through its contest year -- and marquee events have occurred since the early 1980s. "The wave is why people go to J Bay," Thiermann stressed. "Moving so much sand up the beach, you see how waves can be affected."

Locals held demonstrations during the 2010 and 2011 Billabong Pro Jeffrey's Bay events in opposition to the Thyspunt plant, and top ASP riders attended in support, including Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, Taj Burrow, the late Andy Irons and Jordy Smith, who is from nearby Durban. The ASP, however, was not formally involved. So far, the ASP has maintained a diplomatic stance. "[The] ASP International has no official comment on the proposed nuclear power station at Thyspunt," said media director Dave Prodan, who went on to express support for the surfers and local residents regardless of the outcome.

Eskom would not talk to Thiermann, he said. And the company did not respond to an inquiry by ESPN.com regarding the opposition to the Thyspunt proposal, alleged to be four times larger than the Koeberg plant. Eskom has championed nuclear power as cleaner, cheaper and more accessible and reliable than coal, as well as a jobs boost given the manpower required to build the facility. (Links to the environmental assessment of the plan on Eskom's site are broken.)

Alexis Henry of the Surfrider Foundation remarked that, while the Surfrider did not have representation on the ground in South Africa, the group is monitoring the issue with "great interest."

For now, Thiermann's plan is to publicize the debate and connect the opposition in South Africa to groups in the United States with a track record of successful environmental campaigns, as well as alternative energy proponents. In Thiermann's mind, "the rest of the world needs to get involved when they see something wrong."