/ 10 May 2023

South Africa must not fear nuclear power, Gwede Mantashe insists

Gwede Mantashe 5331 Dv
No energy: Minister Gwede Mantashe. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has called on South Africans to embrace nuclear power as part of the solution to the energy crunch in the country.

Speaking to parliament’s portfolio committee on mineral resources and energy on Tuesday, he said the extension of Koeberg nuclear power station’s lifespan by 20 years was necessary and more nuclear power in the future should not be ruled out.

He said extending Koeberg’s life would be beneficial to the country’s energy reliability.

The nuclear power station, about 30km from Cape Town, was first connected to the electricity grid in 1984 and was to be decommissioned by the end of 2024. It accounts for about 3.6% of the country’s electricity.

In 2024, Eskom must satisfy international authorities that the 40-year-old nuclear station can operate safely for another 20 years.

Questioned about the cost of the expansion of Koeberg, Sadika Touffie, Eskom’s acting chief nuclear officer, said the decommissioning liability of the nuclear plant is R16 billion and the cost of extending the life of Koeberg is about R20 billion. 

“This is far less than the cost of building [an] additional generating plant of the same capacity to replace Koeberg, should it be decommissioned,” Touffie said. 

Mantashe said the issues of safety and the disposal of nuclear waste would be addressed but did not provide details.

Environmental groups are calling for the permanent closure of the power plant, and that there are problems with the safe disposal of nuclear waste.

But Mantashe argued on Tuesday that nuclear power is safe. 

“France gets at least 75% of its electricity from nuclear power and does not have any disasters. We have run Koeberg for 40 years and have not had any disasters. We must not deal with nuclear out of fear; it is increasingly getting space in the energy supply. Europe has identified it as part of the green transition, together with gas, and that is our attitude in the department,” he said.

He said that the decision was contained in the Integrated Resource Plan, the country’s long-term energy blueprint.

Touffie said Koeberg was operating safely and no concerns had been identified and that “long-term operation” activities were continuing according to plan and were being closely monitored.

In response to questions on safety concerns, he said: “Over the years, numerous safety modifications have been implemented at Koeberg to provide additional mitigation against all potential risks,” he said.

He added that extending the life of a nuclear plant was not unusual. Internationally, numerous nuclear plants had had their lives extended from 40 to 60 years

“The current practice that we have noticed worldwide is that the nuclear plants can go beyond 60 years. We have seen this in the US, where their plants went over 80 years. We will need to evaluate the suitability of our plant if the appetite to have a nuclear plant still exists beyond 60 years,” he said.

He said that although they were hoping to extend Koeberg’s life, they had a plan for decommissioning it if this was not approved.

“We have an improved plan and strategy on decommissioning the facility if there is an order to decommission the facility. It is quite linked with the agreement to shut down all fossil fuels post 2045. What is important is that we will need to re-evaluate the strategy post that time,” he said. 

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