Editorial: Nuke the new energy plan

Caution over the prohibitively expensive nuclear project cost two finance ministers their jobs. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Caution over the prohibitively expensive nuclear project cost two finance ministers their jobs. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The government looks set to remove one of the last obstacles to a new nuclear build. As we report this week, the draft for South Africa’s updated energy blueprint argues in favour of that technology. The draft – which will, in time, become the 2016 Integrated Resource Plan – will be used as the basis for the country’s energy mix.
Only court challenges will then stand in the way of a trillion-rand nuclear build programme.

But, as we also report, there are alternatives to nuclear power. Rapid advances in renewable technology – thanks to serious money going into research and development – mean the cost of electricity from solar photovoltaic panels has gone from R3.50 per kilowatt-hour to 60c since 2010.

Research by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research shows that South Africa could run 70% of its grid through a mix of wind, solar and peaking power by 2040. The council says this solution would supply electricity at 18c/kWh less than a mix of coal and nuclear power would. By 2040, that would save the country R87-billion a year. Free university education solved.

This is not an argument against the qualities of nuclear technology. It has its merits. But the Cabinet has said Eskom will own and operate any nuclear fleet. This is the same Eskom that the public protector’s report into state capture has torn apart. It is also the same Eskom that has still not finished its giant coal-fired power stations at Medupi and Kusile, even after spending more than double the original budget. The problem with nuclear power is implementation, but that won’t be a problem with renewables.

It is clear that the move towards nuclear at all costs is politically motivated. The last attempt to update the national energy plan, in 2013, got to the Cabinet and no further. It cannot be a coincidence that this report argued that sluggish economic growth and rapid advances in renewable technology meant we did not need to go the nuclear route. Locking South Africa into a nuclear build makes no sense, unless you are a politician with something to gain.

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