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Academic questions scale of nuclear ambitions

Eberhard was the keynote speaker at an electricity supply conference, hosted by the Fossil Fuels Foundation held on Thursday.

Referring to past comments by a senior Eskom executive, who called the heart of Eskom’s business model "big coal, big nuclear and big networks”, Eberhard argued he could not think of a “more Neanderthal business model”.

In a wide-ranging examination of the issues facing the sector, Eberhard questioned electricity plans, encapsulated in the state’s 20-year road map for the sector – the integrated resource plan of 2010 (IRP2010). The IRP2010 provides for 9.6 gigawatts(GW) of new nuclear power capacity to be built, but fundamental assumptions underpinning the plan are now deemed to be well out of date.

In his speech, Eberhard said that given the drop in electricity demand in recent years, and the arrival of new generation capacity on the electricity grid – including 3.5GW of renewable energy and the eventual completion of Eskom’s long-delayed power stations Medupi and Kusile – no further investment into new capacity was needed between 2020 and 2025.

"So what is the current rationale for the proposed 9.6GW nuclear fleet? And why do some say this is not negotiable?" he asked.

The government has repeatedly stated its support for nuclear, most recently in the form of statements from newly appointed energy minister Ben Martins.

This is despite dissension in its ranks, notably from the national planning commission, of which Eberhard is a member.

Not cost-effective
Earlier this year, the NPC commissioned a study by the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, which found investment in nuclear was not necessary for the next 15 to 25 years, nor was it cost-effective based on recent data and in the face of emerging energy alternatives.

Eberhard also questioned why the nuclear procurement processes differed from government’s highly successful procurement of renewable energy – which has been transparent and competitive, helping to drive down the cost of renewable energy during the bidding rounds.

In 2008 Eskom issued a tender for a new nuclear power station, receiving two bids from nuclear vendors Areva and Westinghouse. These were deemed “uncompetitive and unaffordable” but the prices were never made public.

"Why is that?" he asked, "Why should nuclear energy be treated differently from coal or hydro or gas or solar or wind energy?"

He was also sceptical of the need for a special Cabinet committee, the national nuclear energy executive coordinating committee, to drive nuclear power procurement – similar to the mechanism that drove the now notorious arms deal transactions of the late 1990s. 

The Mail & Guardian recently reported that President Jacob Zuma, had quietly replaced his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe as head of the committee. The as yet undisclosed costs of the nuclear procurement programme have been estimated at anywhere from R400-billion to over R1-trillion.

The matter of cost was a "core question", said Eberhard.

Global survey
Cost estimates varied widely across the globe he noted while a global survey revealed that only 13 countries were currently constructing nuclear energy reactors.

"Five of these countries – Slovakia, Taiwan, Ukraine, Argentina, and the US – have uncompleted reactors whose construction started as far back as the 1980s."

A better barometer for measuring the price of atomic energy was market pricing in the form of negotiated long-term contracts for nuclear power.

However, negotiations for a long-term contract for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in the United Kingdom "are approaching prices that South Africa can ill-afford", he said.

The country could not afford "out-dated and costly planning or industry paradigms" nor could it afford "non-transparent and ideological attachments to particular energy sources", according to Eberhard.

South Africa needs an electricity industry that delivers transparent, competitive, reliable and sustainable electricity services that will "power economic growth and improve the welfare of all our people".

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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