/ 13 August 2015

Nuclear can pay its own way

Some say coal-fired power stations are having to limit output during the day when solar energy is at a peak


I have been following the anti-nuclear campaign by Professor Steve Thomas of the University of Greenwich for several years now. Because South Africa’s new nuclear build programme is expected to enter the tender phase in the next few months, many more people and groups have jumped on to the anti-nuclear bandwagon.

Besides my PhD and research in nuclear reactor design, I also studied the new energy policies of the government, focusing on the effect of the hidden and external costs on the profitability of nuclear energy, compared with coal, wind and solar.

The anti-nuclear campaign articles generally have the following in common: they are written by anti-nuclear activists who have no technical training in nuclear engineering and therefore display a lack of understanding of nuclear technology development and, more specifically, of the massively improved inherent passive safety features that have been built into the new ultra-safe generation III and IV nuclear reactors.

They fail to appreciate that these technological advances have made repeats of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents almost impossible and that it is irrational to keep attacking the new nuclear power plants for the sins of their predecessors.

They lack understanding of the relatively small health hazards posed by nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, compared with the very high number of deaths yearly caused by pollutants from coal-fired power plants. They appear not to know that the safety record of nuclear waste management by far outshines that in the competing coal, gas and photovoltaic (PV) solar industries, and that the ease with which nuclear waste can be safely confined is one of the best reasons to be pro-nuclear.

They appear not to understand how the electricity grid works, because they keep singing the praises of PV solar power as an excellent remedy for our power shortage. South Africa has demand peaks early in the morning and early in the evening. But PV solar delivers its peak power around midday when the sun is brightest.

We already have too much power during the middle of the day and do not have cost-effective technologies to store this surplus power for our evening demand peak. The contribution of PV solar forces us to reduce the power output of our coal plants during the middle of the day and then to ramp them up to maximum power for both the morning and evening peaks.

This causes the coal plants to run below their optimal power output around midday and above it during the morning and evening. This increases their emissions of CO2 and other pollutants per kilowatt hour of power produced, and thus partly defeats the purpose for which the solar plants were intended – to fight global warming.

It also causes their operating temperatures to fluctuate, resulting in their steel pipes cracking and more breakdowns, thus increasing load-shedding.

Eskom recently confirmed in Parliament that our renewables programme is making our country’s power problems worse.

The much-quoted Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town published an energy plan that did not take the intermittency costs of renewables or the health cost of coal and the global warming cost of shale gas into account, and thus arrived at the erroneous conclusion that nuclear is a worse option than these alternatives.

The latest attacks focused on the perceived high construction cost of nuclear power plants. But the attackers often display a frightening lack of understanding of economics, such as warning about the recent collapse of the Russian rouble, apparently without understanding that, if the rouble loses value, we get more roubles for our rand and that therefore it actually becomes cheaper to import nuclear elements from Russia.

Another frequent error is to say that nuclear power costs are based only on the overnight construction cost and that adding interest on loans will greatly inflate this cost. 

This is erroneous because all government cost simulations include the full cost of capital.

Thomas was the lead author of a 2007 Greenpeace research report called The Economics of Nuclear Power, in which he chastised the nuclear industry for failing to reduce construction costs by learning from mass production.

But he failed to note that the nuclear industry has not had a chance to go through a proper learning curve: because Chernobyl happened only in 1986, it took about 15 years to develop the new ultra-safe generation III reactors and 12 years to build the first of them. So the opportunity to learn by doing only started roughly in 2013 with the second batch of reactors.

The construction of the second batch of European Pressurised Water (EPR) reactors in China are progressing dramatically better than the first batch in Europe. Mass production in reactor construction has been implemented and major cost reductions are resulting.

South Africa has to get into this export market now. We are capable of exporting nuclear components to the world. One local company started exporting very profitably just over a year ago.

Thomas states: “Building new nuclear energy capability will cost the country billions of US dollars. It is doubtful that South Africa can afford this.”

Other commentators, including the Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane, echo the sentiment.

But they appear not to understand that the total price tag of about R650-billion for the total nuclear programme is a 10-year project investment rather than an “expense”. All the government’s cost calculations build at least a healthy 8.3% real profit into the power cost figures.

So our R650-billion investment will generate R54-billion profit each year for 60 years in a row. Thus our R650-billion investment is going to produce a total return of R3.2-trillion, which will dwarf the R1-trillion cost that the anti-nuclear lobby regularly and incorrectly quotes during their tirades.

So, can we afford to invest the R650-billion without bankrupting our country? Absolutely, because that is the key to reaping the R3.2-trillion return.

It is also the key to general national prosperity. We need the power, urgently.

Dawid Serfontein has a PhD in nuclear engineering from the school of mechanical and nuclear engineering, North-West University.