​The argument for nuclear

Koeberg Nuclear Power Station is currently the only nuclear power station in South Africa. (Photo: Phillip Egli)

Koeberg Nuclear Power Station is currently the only nuclear power station in South Africa. (Photo: Phillip Egli)

The issue around fear of nuclear is worldwide, according to Knox Msebenzi, managing director of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (Niasa), who underlines the integral role nuclear energy could play on the African continent.

“It is unfortunate that nuclear power was introduced to the world through Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” comments Msebenzi. “Many people cannot get it out of their psyche — this link when the word ‘nuclear’ is mentioned. Yet statistically speaking, the technology with the least death attributable to it per megawatt-hour generated is nuclear.

“People’s behavior towards nuclear is based on an irrational fear rather than facts. However, the fears are real and the nuclear industry has a challenge to educate and persuade the public about the virtues of nuclear power generation.

“Our continent has abundant energy resources — hydro, solar, wind, uranium and coal — but it remains poor in electrical power. Almost two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa has no access to electricity. Urbanisation is on the rise and all these people require electricity as part of the big-picture fight against energy poverty.

“The most sensible approach to bridge the energy gap is to follow an approach that embraces the notion of an energy mix. It is imperative that Africa needs to industrialise in order to compete globally. This continent cannot remain the source of raw materials and [yet] continue to import goods and services from developed countries at exorbitant prices.”

Msebenzi explains that in order to industrialise, massive amounts of power need to be generated, which requires substantial amounts of base load power from fossil fuels, hydro or nuclear.

“However, base load generation tends to be high-level infrastructure projects that require funding. It has been argued that Africa does not lack money to fund projects, but rather lacks sound and sustainable energy policies. Renewable energy has a role to play — particula rly in the short term, as in some parts of the continent it may not be feasible to provide grid power due to extensive geographies. In the medium to long term, these places should be integrated to the grid and any renewable source of generation be used to offset expensive fuels such as gas or diesel.

The Russians are coming

In the South African context, the anti-nuclear rhetoric has taken a new turn, according to Msebenzi, who says the narrative is around the very expensive nuclear deal signed with Russia has two dimensions that invoke fear in this discourse.

“The first one is around the huge numbers being quoted of a trillion rand’s debt if the 9 600-megawatt [nuclear project] will be built with taxpayer’s money and that this will be built overnight. The 9 600-megawatt [programme] is a 20-year programme, which will start with the first two units, and by the time the second two units begin the first two will already be generating revenue.

“At no point will the treasury sign a cheque to buy nuclear power plants. Eskom will take a loan to finance the programme, much the same as independent power producers (IPPs) get funding to build wind turbines or solar farms.

“The loan will be paid back by the consumers of electricity. So there is the fear that this nuclear programme will plunge the country into debt. The second fear — which is applicable only to certain sectors of our population — invokes the Cold War fear of the Russians. ‘The Russians are coming! This time they come bearing horrible nuclear things!’ This is not based on any facts, but premised on the suspicion some people have of the current [Russian] political leadership.”

Energy mix

Msebenzi believes that, given the power grid’s needs for base load generation, if we are to reduce our reliance on coal, nuclear is the way to go. “We are not blessed with huge hydro potential. Even then, droughts have made some countries vulnerable. Until such time that the question of economically viable storage of power can be addressed, renewables will remain useful as a small, but very important part of the energy mix.

Asked whether nuclear would benefit Africans first, Mzebenzi stresses that with urbanisation on the increase, people need jobs, making industrialisation the way to go.

“Even at the primary (extractive) level industry, huge amounts of power are required. To eliminate poverty, we need 6%+ annual economic growth, making provision of sustainable affordable power a pre-requisite.

“The new nuclear build will create new direct jobs, first in the construction phase and then in the running of the plant. Then it will create indirect jobs.

“Any investor who wants to open a mine in North West province wants to know if there is power to run operations. If Eskom says they cannot guarantee this, the investor will go somewhere else. We have lost a number of potential jobs due to not having reliable and affordable power,” concludes Mzebenzi.

Gaopalelwe Santswere, senior scientist with the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) says: “Nuclear science and technology has continued to play a pivotal role in accelerating socioeconomic development in Africa. For instance, nuclear medicine and radiation is being used widely to diagnose and treat cancer, nuclear techniques are being used to improve human nutrition and food safety and radioisotopes are being used to manage natural resources.

“South Africa’s nuclear reactors provide approximately 5% of its electricity and Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Namibia, Sudan, Nigeria and Tunisia [all] have plans underway for nuclear energy.

“It is time that we make use of this era of growth upon our continent to claim a position as one of the global leaders in nuclear energy.

“We have learnt many times not to take for granted what we have, otherwise it will be too late to appreciate what we had. We appeal to the leaders of our country to acknowledge these lessons and forge ahead with a nuclear programme that will strategically position our country and continent as a global player and leader in the nuclear sector.”

Nuclear fleet

Santswere believes that in order to attain a global leadership position in the supply of nuclear systems and components, South Africa needs access to a market beyond its shores.

“There are over 400 operating nuclear power reactors in the world and with only about 10 destined for South Africa by 2030, our own domestic market would not provide the necessary demand to sustain a global leadership position.

“However, through the nuclear programme, South Africa is ‘importing’ the largest nuclear fleet globally and is in a position to leverage this order with suppliers. It is imperative that South Africa use this opportunity — prior to signing any deal — to request access to the supplier markets for goods and services to be produced in South Africa. A firm and guaranteed offtake for South African-produced reactor vessels, pipes, wire, nuclear fuel, pumps, valves, reinforcement, pipes and more should be insisted upon through the bidding process.”

Supplier countries should view South Africa not only as a buyer of nuclear equipment, according to Santswere, but also as a seller.

“They should be aware that the long-term sustainability of the nuclear programme in South Africa depends on the very elements that could bring the benefits of skills, jobs, and industries to the South African people. The growth of the local nuclear industry would depend on public support for nuclear power, which can easily be tarnished by foreign suppliers who are viewing our country as a nice export destination to create jobs in their countries.

“This has been witnessed in our partner countries. These situations aggravate the local labour market and cause increased anti-nuclear sentiment, which has collapsed several nuclear programmes globally in the past.

“If the large costs associated with procuring a nuclear power plant means paying for imported components, the effect on the exchange rate and foreign exchange deficit will have a significant impact on the economy of the country.  Detailed financial analysis will reveal that high levels of localisation and export of nuclear components manufactured in South Africa will be necessary to prevent a chain reaction that would lead to insurmountable foreign debt.

“South Africa has the fifth-largest reserves of uranium in the world, so there is definite potential to become a leading global producer of uranium again. This is because some of the cheaper extraction sources of uranium are likely to be depleted over the next 15 to 20 years.

“South Africa should not fall into the same trap of other countries and become an exporter of raw uranium. There are many jobs and value to be created in the processing of uranium into finished nuclear fuel assemblies, which would be a R7.5-billion per annum industry for local demand alone.

“It would be a real pity if our uranium were to be extracted and shipped abroad for processing, only to be re-imported as completed fuel assemblies,” concludes Santswere.

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