/ 14 April 2021

The battle for 2050 energy dominance: Nuclear industry makes its pitch

Nuclear Plan Slips Under Budget Radar

The nuclear industry believes it should be able to account for more than 50% of South Africa’s vacant 24 gigawatts of power left behind by the demise of coal in a net-zero 2050 scenario. This was one of the outcomes of a government communications’ panel discussion on alternative future energy sources for South Africa hosted on Wednesday.

On the panel were the science and innovation department’s chief director for hydrogen and energy, Dr Rebecca Maserumule, as well as a familiar energy partner — the nuclear industry.

Reflection on nuclear narratives in SA

The Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa’s managing director, Knox Msebenzi, told journalists that anti-nuclear lobbyists were responsible for misconceptions and propaganda about nuclear, despite the long-term employment and support for local economies associated with new builds.

He also challenged the negative narrative about nuclear power being part of a corrupt industry, adding that, if that were the case, law enforcement would have acted on such information. “Nuclear energy is not corrupt; people are corrupt,” he said.

In 2014, the Mail & Guardian broke the story that then president Jacob Zuma personally negotiated a nuclear deal with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Sources told the publication at the time that Zuma went on a secret visit to Moscow before returning to instruct the then energy minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, to sign a deal with the Russians on the sidelines of the general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria.

At the same time, Russia’s state-owned nuclear agency, Rosatom, released a statement that it had clinched a deal with South Africa.

A legal battle ensued and in 2017, the Western Cape high court ruled that the secret tabling of the intergovernmental agreements with Russia, the US and Korean were unconstitutional and unlawful, and that they be set aside.

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Civil society organisations Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute argued that, “When it comes to far-reaching decisions, such as the nuclear deal, which would alter the future of our country, government is legally required to debate in parliament and do a thorough, transparent and meaningful public consultation”.

That deal was a major contributor to the current negative perceptions about nuclear energy in South Africa, as were the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters, of 1986 and 2011, respectively. 

In 2019 a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that Russian engagement with South Africa during the Zuma era was deep rooted and relied on a web of relationships at the highest levels of both governments.

This included the promotion of multibillion-dollar projects involving state-owned companies particularly in the energy sector, and the leveraging of Cold War-era ties forged during South Africa’s period of national liberation.

The researchers linked the significance of the secret deal to a larger problem of state capture.

According to authors Andrew S Weiss and Eugene Rumer: “As early as the autumn of 2011, Zuma told then finance minister Pravin Gordhan that he wanted to award the entire construction deal to Russia. He brushed aside Gordhan’s insistence on following established procedures for state procurement, according to Gordhan’s written testimony to the state capture commission.

“Gordhan warned Zuma that failing to follow the established procedures could land the president in trouble similar to the fallout over the earlier arms-sales scandal that had nearly ended his political career,” the report noted.

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“As Gordhan’s successor Nhlanhla Nene, who served as finance minister from May 2014 to December 2015, put it, the nuclear project ‘would have constituted the largest public investment programme in South African history, and, relative to the size of the South African economy, would have been one of the largest public sector investments ever undertaken internationally’,” the report said.

Wednesday’s briefing suggested an effort by the government to sensitise the media and public to South Africa’s planned reliance on nuclear power in a low-carbon future.

The nuclear-industry body said that South Africa would not be familiar with a term such as load-shedding if previous administrations had listened to Eskom.

During the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, Eskom explored possibly expanding the Koeberg nuclear power facility but decided in 2008 that the project was unaffordable.

Msebenzi said that Mbeki had apologised for not listening to Eskom in 2009 and that South Africa now had the opportunity to avoid the same mistake.

“We are turning investors away because of how we benchmark ourselves. Brics [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] is going big on nuclear and renewables too,” he added, before lamenting the policy uncertainty that has hindered alternative base-load expansion.

“As a developing economy, we need to make certain decisions that are not the least cost effective, but [add economic value],” Msebenzi said. 

Old concepts for future energy systems?

In a previous interview, E3G energy systems researcher, Jesse Burton, speaking about base-load arguments for increased coal and nuclear capacity, said that the politicised notion of base load was a misnomer and irrelevant to future energy systems.

“This idea of base load is incorrect because there is no inherent technical requirement for large plants that operate inflexibly — that is to say, plants that cannot easily vary their output or that suffer costly losses in efficiency and competitiveness if they do,” she said.

Burton believes South Africa needs to move away from the very idea of base load if it is to move towards having cost-effective and reliable electricity systems.

According to her, base load, or peak demand, does not have to come from one large power source.

“It can instead be supplied by a diversified and complementary set of resources,” she said.

But the nuclear sector believes that the 440 reactors across 32 countries is an indication of nuclear’s significance in securing energy.

Despite repeating that South Africa cannot compare itself to developed economies in which renewable energy is supplying peak demand, Msebenzi used Brics, the UK, France, Korea and Japan as examples of blocs and countries successfully powered by nuclear energy during Wednesday’s discussion.

The current energy plan does not specify how the supply gap left by coal in 2050 will be split between various energy forms, but Msebenzi is optimistic that nuclear’s contribution will be significant.

“We are of the view that we need to be reasonable about our approach to energy mix — we are not going to be advocating for an all nuclear power generation. We know France has around 70% nuclear generations; we have extensive geographies that require different energies. [South Africa’s integrated resource plan] does not specify, but it does say that no one form of energy will be dominant,” he said.

The nuclear industry is depending on the streamlining of licensing for modular reactors, which are the technology responsible for reducing the need to develop nuclear plants near sea water for cooling.

Msebenzi argued that during the term of a new build, scores of jobs and employment would be created, making the investment worthwhile in an economy that needs reliable electrification — and employment.

Hydrogen fuel to boost beneficiation

Hydrogen fuel-cell technology was among the alternative sources of energy identified during the panel discussion as a viable route to creating jobs, promoting innovation and the beneficiation of South Africa’s rich stocks of platinum. The country is estimated to hold 75% of the world’s platinum reserves.

Maserumule, who is chief director for hydrogen energy at the department, told the briefing that the “Hydrogen Society Roadmap” would reach cabinet this year, and was intended to provide policy certainty for the country’s hydrogen plans.

She admitted that although hydrogen technology would introduce vast opportunities for South Africa, storage and transportation would come with a hefty price tag.

Maserumule also emphasised that, when considering energy alternatives, the mantra should be that of inclusive transition. 

Tunicia Phillips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa