The future of nuclear power in South Africa

A debate is raging internationally on whether nuclear power should form part of future plans for low-emission power. In some circles there is even a drive for nuclear power to be considered ‘renewable”.

Although nuclear power is cleaner than coal power, it is by no means renewable as uranium fuel is not an unlimited resource and the question of whether to continue using nuclear power is unresolved.

Government has called for greater diversification of primary energy sources to boost energy security.

In the foreword to the national Nuclear Energy Policy former minerals and energy minister Buyelwa Sonjica highlighted the role of nuclear energy in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

‘Nuclear power is one of the least carbon-intensive generating technologies and the significant annual savings of carbon dioxide emissions brought about by the world’s nuclear power stations cannot be denied,” she wrote.
But any moves to build additional nuclear capacity would require extensive public participation and viability studies.

Given the country’s deep uranium resources, mining and production facilities, nuclear power could be a boon to South Africa’s energy security. But issues around safety and waste storage continue to be of concern.

Tristen Taylor, energy policy officer at anti-nuclear NGO Earthlife Africa, is sceptical of the so-called ‘nuclear renaissance”. ‘There’s a lot of talk but few people are actually building reactors,” he said.

Taylor believes nuclear power is too risky to continue to invest in, especially in light of the cleaner, safer renewable technologies now available.

‘Although the probability of anything going wrong at a nuclear power station is very low, when it does go wrong it can be very bad. Look at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Nuclear power stations also produce highly toxic, highly radioactive waste and there is no longterm plan anywhere in the world to deal with the waste,” he said.

Peet du Plooy, trade and investment programme adviser for WWF, said he would not include nuclear power in considerations for cleaner and renewable energy sources, not only because of concerns for safety and what to do with the waste, but also because of the cost of nuclear power stations, the long lead times involved and the ‘low local content” of the technology.

‘The specialised equipment used in nuclear power stations is manufactured in only a few places. At the moment nuclear suppliers like Areva say a nuclear power station will be about 70% imported in value,” he said. The lead time for a nuclear power station—that is, the time taken to build it and bring it online—is about 10 years.

Environmental activists argue in favour of investment in clean, renewable energy, such as solar power and wind. ‘We’ve spent R14-billion on the PBMR [pebble bed modular reactor] now and we still don’t have anything to show for it,” said Taylor, who pointed out that instead of a 165MW PBMR, the country could have invested in concentrated solar power plants, which would have provided 300MW of clean power.

Taylor said he believes the nuclear industry is dying. But Dieter Matzner, principle power consultant at energy consultancy Hatch, said nuclear power will remain a good energy option whether we like it or not. ‘We have to face reality. We will probably see 15% to 20% of our energy from nuclear in 20 to 30 years from now,” he said.

Matzner said that given South Africa’s energy requirements and the technical skills available, nuclear power is the ‘logical step”.

Nersa spokesperson Charles Hlebela said that, among others, government policy, cost and climate issues would decide what part= nuclear power would play in South Africa’s future energy mix.

‘Nuclear might be included in the next phase of new power stations. The decision to proceed will be based on all the factors that influence a decision when extending the generation base,” he said.

The department of energy’s acting chief director of nuclear technology, Ditebogo Kgomo, said South Africa’s future energy mix will be guided by the availability of the energy source and the technology required to exploit it, hence South Africa’s heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation.

He said proven technologies are preferred by the department. According to Kgomo, the nuclear programme is part of South Africa’s long-term plan. ‘The plan seeks to diversify primary energy and include renewable energy, clean coal, imported hydro and cogeneration.”

She said the country plan would be published in the next few months and that it would include further information on ‘the dates and quantum” of nuclear projects that would be procured in the next 20 years.

It seems likely that even if South Africa fails to increase its nuclear base, the Koeberg nuclear power station at least would remain operational for decades.

Built in the early 1980s, South Africa’s only nuclear power plant generates 1 800MW of electricity, providing about 6% of the country’s energy needs.

The two units at the plant were designed with a 40-year lifespan but with retrofitting this could be increased to 50 or even 60 years.

Lewis Phidza, a stakeholder manager at Eskom, said any extension to the lifespan of the Koeberg units would be subject to the outcomes of engineering studies, financial viability and regulatory approvals, including an environmental impact assessment, among other issues.

Although Hlebela maintained that attempts to replace Koeberg’s capacity would be based on the ‘most appropriate technology available” at the time, Taylor said the choice of technology going forward would depend mainly on political will.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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