/ 17 May 2012

To nuke or frack?

To Nuke Or Frack?

Energy Minister Dipuo Peters threw her weight behind fracking ahead of her department’s budget vote speech in Parliament on Thursday.

The minister said it was her “hope and wish” that the final report into fracking for shale gas in the Karoo indicated that reserves could be extracted and exploited safely should they be proven.

“It is my wish and prayer on a daily basis that when the report is tabled [before Cabinet] that it says, yes the gas is there and you can extract it safely for the benefit for the people of South Africa,” Peters said.

“Let’s not pretend it’s a swear word … Imagine the day they say we have gas in South Africa, what that [would mean] for jobs, for security of supply,” said Peters.

She pointed to the already extensive intellectual capital has in the form of gas to liquid fuel technology, which companies such as Sasol are built on.

Peters was clarifying her remarks on fracking, reported in Business Report earlier in the week. But she said she would abide by whatever decision Cabinet ultimately took on the issue.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing injects a mixture of water and chemicals into deep shale rock formations, to extract trapped gas.

It can then be used to fuel closed cycle gas turbines to generate electricity.

The method is highly controversial, and is criticised by environmental groups notably for its threat to scarce water reserves in the arid Karoo region.

Critics view renewable energy such as solar power as a far more sustainable way to create energy as well as employment in the region. 

Implications for nuclear?
There is growing uncertainty regarding South Africa’s ability to build, maintain and regulate six new nuclear power stations, equivalent to 9 600 MW, as outlined in government’s electricity road map, the integrated resource plan of 2010 (IRP2010).

Gas-fired electricity, in the meantime, is emerging as a possible solution to the country’s electricity shortages, if not an outright alternative to nuclear power. Aside from being much cheaper, it is less carbon intensive than coal fired power, and power stations can be built relatively swiftly when compared to large units for coal or nuclear plant.

The national planning commission is strongly supportive of a gas alternative in its national development plan.

Peters confirmed that the timelines for the nuclear build set out on the IRP2010 have already been delayed by a year.

The first nuclear power station is set to come on stream in 2023, according to the IRP, meaning it would now only come online in 2024.

Nuclear power plants are very expensive however and the industry is characterised by long lead times in construction. It is unclear if even a 2024 deadline could be met.

Government has refused to give specifics on what the nuclear build programme might cost the country. It has indicated that it could be a minimum of R300-billion. But research by the Mail & Guardian’s investigative unit Amabhungane indicates that in fact, it could cost the country over R1-trillion.

When asked if a potential gas windfall could force government to rethink its nuclear strategy, the minister said she did not want to attempt “prophecy”.

The development of further local gas infrastructure still needed to take place, and would take some time Peters pointed out.

“We can’t say now that we are not going to engage on nuclear. Nuclear is also part of our industrialisation plans for the country,” she said.

Shale gas would however make a significant contribution to future questions of security of supply, contributing to South Africa’s bid to become self-reliant for both electricity and liquid fuels.

Peters indicated however that government was in talks over the operations of state owned oil company Petro SA. While she declined to give further details, she indicated that it had to have the capacity to play a role in the development of any potential shale gas industry.

A national nuclear energy executive committee (NNEEC) headed by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, was established last year to oversee the procurement process. The committee has yet to have its first meeting. Peters said however it would meet at the end of the month.

It’s not just the money
Aside from the costs of nuclear procurement the capacity of the National Nuclear Regulator to oversee a further six nuclear power stations, has been highlighted by the International Atomic Energy Agency as something the country needs to address.

Peters said the planned 9 600MW of nuclear will more than double the NNRs work.

The minister said the NNR has been requested to assess its systems, operational structures, as well as its legislative framework in a bid to identify shortcomings.

This extended to the question of governance and the NNR’s board, which was being examined to ensure that it had the requisite expertise in place to provide proper oversight.