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Nuclear power is a key part of SA's future

This form of energy offers not only a secure electricity supply but also benefits, writes Minister of Energy Dipuo Peters.

A reliable supply of affordable electricity is a key component of a strong and successful economy for any modern country competing in global markets. It is a prerequisite for growth and development, especially for emerging economies such as South Africa’s.

Each country will use electricity technologies based on the primary energy resources, indigenous or imported, available to that country. But such technologies will also take into account factors such as the nature of the electricity produced (suitability for base-load, peaking/emergency load or intermittent/non-dispatchable load), the availability of other supporting resources (such as water), the cost of the electricity produced, security of supply, the need to minimise adverse impacts on the environment and the opportunity for job creation and training and development that the technology provides. A judicious mix of different technologies is usually required to optimise the value of the electricity produced, taking all of the different factors into account.

South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2010, promulgated in May 2011, provides a medium- to long-term plan for the expansion of electricity supply (including private and own generation and power purchases from regional projects) as well as for energy efficiency and demand-management initiatives over a 20-year period.

Taking into account these initiatives, the IRP predicts that electricity consumption will increase from 260 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2010 to 454TWh in 2030, and that the peak demand for electricity will increase from 39 gigawatt (GW) in 2010 to 68GW in 2030.

South Africa is a water-stressed country and does not have large rivers that would help to increase its indigenous hydropower capacity, but it does have the long-term possibility of importing hydropower from countries to the north. Wind and solar power are developing rapidly and are expected to make a substantial contribution to South Africa’s energy mix. The fact that both are limited in the number of electricity hours that they can generate means that other suitable base-load technologies are required.

Nuclear power is a suitable base-load source. It is well established, having provided up to 17% of world electricity for more than 25 years. Energy derived from biomass is feasible but is unlikely to become a major player. Power derived in various ways from the ocean is conceivable, but the various technologies are in their infancy.

Taking all this into account, the Policy-Adjusted IRP 2010 requires, in addition to existing and committed electricity-generation capacity (including 10GW committed coal), 9.6GW of new nuclear capacity; 6.3GW of new coal capacity; 17.8GW of new renewable energy capacity; and 8.9GW of other new generation sources. Thus, South Africa’s current heavy dependence (90%) on coal for electricity generation will be reduced by increasing the amount of low-carbon nuclear and renewable technologies.

According to the IRP’s schedule, the first new nuclear power unit will start generating in 2023, with the full 9.6GW of new nuclear capacity on stream by 2030. This represents six to nine new nuclear units (depending on the design chosen), located on three or four sites.

The government’s 2008 nuclear energy policy made it clear that South Africa will pursue a pressurised-water reactor nuclear-power capacity-expansion programme, and will benchmark the nuclear building programme against the highest global standards. We can leverage the experience of 27 years’ successful operation of the two units at Koeberg.

Commercial nuclear power stations started operating in the late 1950s in the Soviet Union, the United States and the United Kingdom. Lessons learned from those early nuclear-power units improved their designs. Many of the units in operation today, including the two reactors at Koeberg, constructed in the 1970s and 1980s, have over the years been upgraded.

Technological improvements and lessons learned from the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have been taken into account to keep designs aligned to modern safety standards. The most recent designs, incorporating more passive safety (as opposed to engineered safety) features, are under construction in Finland, France and China.

A massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami hit Japan on March 11 2011, causing widespread destruction and leaving thousands dead and missing. The tsunami also caused serious damage to the Fukushima boiling-water reactor nuclear-power units, with large amounts of radioactive material being released into the environment. Thousands of people were evacuated from the vicinity of the power station. Three people at the station lost their lives as a direct result of the tsunami; no deaths were attributed to radiation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission to Fukushima at the end of May 2011 concluded that “to date no confirmed long-term health effects to any person have been reported as a result of radiation exposure from the nuclear accident”.

Clearly there are lessons to be learned from Fukushima, not least the importance of protection against flooding and of ensuring secure back-up power supplies that will continue to function after any event that knocks out the usual systems. We will take these lessons into account as South Africa implements its nuclear-power expansion programme.

South Africa’s heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation means that the sector is a large contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions. Although South Africa’s total emissions are still relatively small (3%) on a global scale, action must still be taken now. For South Africa, taking meaningful climate action is about seizing the opportunity to build international competitiveness, new economic infrastructure, sectors and activity; create prosperity and jobs; transform the economy and society; reduce poverty; and improve health and quality of life for all.

South Africa will implement nationally appropriate mitigation to reduce emissions by 34% by 2020 and by 42% in 2025. The extent to which this commitment is achieved depends on the provision of finance, technology and capacity-building support by developed countries and through the UN climate-change regime. The energy mix required by the policy-adjusted IRP, specifically the increased contribution from nuclear power and renewable energy, will make a significant contribution to the mitigation of South Arica’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

In implementing the IRP, the government is clear that technology transfer, training, development and localisation of manufacture must be achieved to optimise the benefits to South Africa, as well as to provide job creation beyond the usual construction, operation and maintenance of infrastructure. This will be key to the implementation of the nuclear-expansion programme.

South Africa promotes the right of all states to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. It promotes nuclear energy as part of combating greenhouse-gas emissions and to ensure security of energy supply. The pursuance of energy security is not only a right of all states but also a global responsibility. Unwarranted restrictions should not be imposed on states wanting to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

The energy crisis facing developing countries is likely to worsen as states reach capacity constraints in the power sector, so it is crucial to South Africa’s interests to expand its nuclear-power capacity. Through the IRP, the government has given its support and commitment to nuclear power, taking into account the lessons learned from Fukushima and the opportunities for technology transfer, training, development and localisation, as a viable option for low-carbon base-load electricity generation.

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