/ 20 April 2023

If it’s not coal, then go for nuclear, says energy department

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Reaction: Koeberg in the Western Cape is South Africa’s only nuclear power station. Photo: Dwayne Senior;/Getty Images

The department of mineral resources and energy has criticised the Presidential Climate Commission’s report, saying there was insufficient funding for nuclear power that would provide a secure source of energy for the future. 

The Presidential Climate Commission’s report was presented at a national colloquium on long-term electricity planning last week. The report argues for renewable energy, but the department differed, saying the report had not done sufficient research to cover South African realities. 

According to the report, 10% of the funding was allocated to nuclear energy. The department said during discussions at the colloquium that this was not sufficient because South Africa already had access to nuclear resources whereas it did not have access to hydrogen and renewable energy. It further argued that nuclear energy would provide enough capacity to sustain the grid.

“The report is highly questionable as we think that there was no stress test done or sufficient forecasting done. According to the report in front of us, there is not sufficient funding allocated for nuclear energy, which we have proof works. What we don’t have is green hydrogen but that scores higher than nuclear hydrogen. We ask that the report be amended before it is published,” the department said.

It added that nuclear power is a zero-emission clean energy source because it generates power through fission, which is the process of splitting uranium atoms to produce energy.

“Nuclear power has the advantage of being a reliable and dispatchable source of electricity. Nuclear power plants can operate continuously for long periods, which helps to stabilise the grid and provide a consistent supply of electricity to consumers,” said the department

It added that South Africa has significant uranium reserves, which could potentially be used to fuel nuclear power plants. This could help to reduce the country’s reliance on imported fossil fuels and provide a secure source of energy for the future.

The government and the department have been conducting studies to assess the feasibility of nuclear power as an option for the country’s energy mix. In 2021, the government released a draft of the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that includes nuclear power as one of the options for meeting the country’s energy needs.

It proposed the construction of 2.5  gigawatts of new nuclear capacity by 2030, with the first reactor coming online in 2030 and the last one in 2035. 

The IRP also includes investments in renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower.

Experts have argued that although renewable energy is the future, it did not cater for South Africa’s immediate energy needs.

NJ Ayuk, the executive chairperson of the African Energy Chamber, said South Africa can and should embrace solar and wind power, but also must consider their intermittency issues. 

“These energy sources can’t be counted on to provide electricity around the clock. The country does not need more power fluctuations. It needs baseload power sources that can generate dependable power capable of consistently meeting demand,” he said.

Last week, during a media briefing Ryan Collier, chief executive of Rosatom Central and Southern Africa, approached South Africa about the need for baseload electricity to supplement intermittent renewables.

He said with 50% of Eskom’s coal-powered power stations due for decommissioning by 2030 and 75% to 80% by 2050, the country needs to embark on a roll-out of gas generation in the medium term to balance the increased share of wind and solar power in the electricity mix. He argued for open-cycle gas turbines to be converted to use gas instead of diesel. 

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Collier said nuclear has the potential to be the best technology that will provide the baseload electricity many argue renewables lack.

“Nuclear power stations have proven that they can be run at a high availability factor, and nuclear power is considered clean energy. It is also affordable and sustainable too,” he said.

Rosatom’s 70 megawatt barge, the Akademik Lomonosov, is the only floating small modular reactor in use globally. It has been providing electricity to the Russian arctic port town of Pevek since 2020.

Despite controversy surrounding nuclear energy, the European Union has declared nuclear energy sustainable and clean. This means its use is still worthy of investment.

But environmentalists argue that nuclear power is unsafe and difficult to get rid of because there are no safe plans to contain or get rid of the nuclear waste.

The power barge Akademik Lomonosov is a floating nuclear reactor. Photo: Dwayne Senior;/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Greenpeace sued the EU executives for deciding that nuclear energy was worthy of its sustainable investment label. 

Last year the EU established a classification list of energy sources deemed sustainable as it seeks to shift to a carbon-neutral future.

Greenpeace argued in its lawsuit that the EU was applying a “false label” to nuclear power that could drain green financing from other sources.

Nuclear power may not emit carbon, but it presents a danger to the environment, Greenpeace argued.

The M&G previously reported that the government has been at loggerheads with environmental groups for failing to dispose of nuclear waste.

In an interview with the M&G, energy analyst Chris Yelland said nuclear power sources are not the best alternatives to coal because they take up to 15 years to build and establish — time we don’t have.

“Traditional power stations like coal and nuclear take many years to bring to fruition. A new nuclear station would take about 14 or 15 years so that’s not the solution.” 

He added that in the next three years South Africa needs to look at customers of electricity becoming part of the solution. “That means domestic, commercial, industrial, mining, and agricultural customers of electricity all become part of the solution,” he said.

This is despite Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa’s plan to extend the life expectancy of many coal-fired power stations that are set to be decommissioned by 2025.

AfriForum’s chief executive, Kallie Kriel, said the party is in the process of investing in an electricity project that involves nuclear as a long-term solution for the country’s power crisis.

He added that it would take about 10 years before its nuclear solution would be operational.

The lobby group plans to revive the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor project that was abandoned in 2010. The project was hailed as the concept that could solve the country’s energy shortages. 

AfriForum plans to approach venture capitalist André Pienaar, whose investor company X-energy, based in the United States, is working on the technology.

The eThekwini metro municipality is hoping to install a 940 megawatt nuclear power station in the city as part of a public-private sector partnership plan to reduce the city’s dependence on the Eskom national power grid, eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda said last month. This is despite the municipality’s debt of more than R40  million.

Build One South Africa’s Mmusi Maimane told the M&G that part of its plan for the country included the introduction of sustainable nuclear energy, which would see nuclear power stations built over the next 10 or so years. The stations would provide about 4 000 to 5 000 megawatts of electricity.

“We need to look at small modular reactors and how we can ensure that a small nuclear build can augment our energy while we process our way into a transition where energy supply is in fact not only stable but environmentally sustainable,” he said.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, in its documents for solutions to the electricity problem, said the country should be plugging in the floating power stations that add gas and nuclear power into the grid.

“The Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, Qatar, Türkiye have the capacity to bring the floating power stations to the shores of South Africa to provide dependable electricity. A responsible government must immediately start the process of sourcing FSRUs [floating storage regasification units] to connect into South Africa’s grid.” 

Mandisa Nyathi is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.