/ 13 May 2016

Nuclear power ‘will cost SA just $1bn’

Declining US oil production
Declining US oil production

The numbers are neither his nor those of his organisation, says Phumzile Tshelane, the chief executive of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), which he stressed twice, although he admitted the figures left him “salivating”.

The basic proposition is this: South Africa will build nuclear power stations that will produce electricity more cheaply than in any other country in the world, and at a far lower cost than coal or renewables. On top of that, it will make a profit of nearly 99% of its investment, without factoring in the benefits of a cheap and dependable supply of electricity.

And everyone will benefit from it, with R340 billion to be split among South Africa’s businesspeople and more jobs than you can shake a stick at — as long as those pesky environmentalists don’t win the propaganda war.

“Nobody [physically] operates a wind turbine,” Tshelane said confidently. “We are not going to create jobs by building a wind turbine – that is, continuous jobs … Nobody operates solar PV [photovoltaic systems], so we are not going to inject jobs into this economy and ensure that we spread the wealth of this economy by constructing solar [power-generating capacity].”

On the other hand, a massive roll-out of nuclear power stations will add $77.3 billion to South Africa’s gross domestic product, Tshelane said, and save $22 billion in carbon costs at a conservative estimate.

All that, and more, can be South Africa’s for the bargain price of $50 billion. And, although that number (R750 billion at the current exchange rate) is a long way from the R400 million Necsa had until very recently cited as total cost of the programme, “the R1 trillion figure often repeated in the press is somebody’s dream”, Tshelane said.

But the numbers are dubious, drawn from a March 2016 report by a little-known British consultancy, Trusted Sources, which made some startling assumptions to reach its rosy outlook.

If South Africa did not build nuclear reactors, the share of electricity generated by wind and solar sources would remain at a steady 6%, the consultancy assumed in calculating carbon impact. And the capital cost of building nuclear generators with an output of 9.6GW in South Africa would be $50 billion, Trusted Sources baldly asserted, providing neither justification nor source. 

That is the exact figure Russian officials cited in 2014, when they announced South Africa had agreed to buy reactors to that value. South Africa subsequently furiously denied that a deal had been struck and has refused to provide an official cost estimate ever since. 

In February, Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told Parliament that she had a preliminary estimate. It was “very far” from R1 trillion but she would not disclose the actual number “because it will create too much confusion”.

But, although the numbers are murky, the intent behind them is clear.

“We can never take it for granted that the public will go along with what we want to do,” Knox Msebenzi, the managing director of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (Niasa), said. He was sharing a stage with Tshelane. “[This is] a propaganda war that we must wage and win.”

Necsa is not a neutral party in the nuclear debate. The government, which owns it, has repeatedly committed itself to the massive nuclear build. The parastatal itself stands to gain massively in reach, budget and prestige if its current uranium handling and nuclear waste disposal operations are used to support several new nuclear power stations. It has lobbied – sometimes subtly, sometimes less so – for the nuclear build for years.

But last week Necsa told a meeting of about 50 people at a Johannesburg “business information-sharing session about the nuclear build programme opportunities” that it will have to address popular perceptions if the benefits, including those to local businesspeople, are to be realised.

“We need to get into popular magazines that are read by ladies,” said Tshelane, explaining that he would take note of a discussion about the benefits of nuclear power were it initiated by his wife. 

“We need to penetrate the schooling system through programmes that are innovative,” he said, explaining that parents who have to help with homework about the benefits of nuclear power will be forced to pay attention.

And the time to launch that offensive is yesterday.

“We have got to understand that in our game there is an opposition,” said Kelvin Kemm, who was named chairperson of the Necsa board in March, in a presentation following those of Tshelane and Msebenzi. The “extreme green” element, he said, gets to kids early, and they grow up to chant anti-nuclear slogans.

What the country needs to realise, Kemm said, is that producing more electricity is the only way to improve the quality of life for South Africans, and “you’re not going to be doing that on breezes and sunbeams”.

In an hourlong presentation, Kemm described nuclear critics as “the florist or the dog-parlour owner”. He blamed misunderstandings about nuclear energy on lies peddled by environmentalists, ridiculed the fear of radiation of those who live close to the Koeberg nuclear power station and roundly dismissed any suggestion that a nuclear build could be too complex or too expensive to succeed.

“There’s no reason why we can’t sort out a nuclear programme,” he said. “Piece of cake.”