/ 6 March 2024

We want our own nuclear energy now, says Mantashe

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Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Gallo

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has called on the United States to let South Africa develop its uranium deposits into fuel for nuclear power.

South Africa imports nuclear fuel components from the US and France for its Koeberg power station. Nations procuring such material from the US enter into agreements with that country.

The agreements — which are subject to specified safeguards and security measures outlined in section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954 — are designed to prevent recipient countries from developing nuclear bombs and weapons.

Speaking at the Africa Energy Indaba on Tuesday, Mantashe emphasised the importance of using the country’s uranium resources for domestic nuclear power generation.

He said the uranium would be used for fuel instead of having to import it from other countries, adding that the fuel would not be used for military technology. “We want to use it for energy, because we have it.” 

Mantashe’s call echoes the plea made in the negotiations between South Africa and the US, which have stalled because of South Africa’s insistence on its sovereignty to produce nuclear reactor fuel autonomously.

South Africa is in discussions with the US to renew its licence for Koeberg to expand the plant’s life expectancy. Koeberg is the only nuclear power station in Africa and is responsible for 5% of South Africa’s total electricity production. 

Mantashe said despite the conditions set by the US, South Africa will proceed with the development of new nuclear power plants, aimed at adding 2 500 megawatts of generation capacity alongside Koeberg.

“We will invest [in nuclear], but we must do it at a pace and rate the country can afford,” Mantashe said. 

He added that the country would not repeat past mistakes. During Jacob Zuma’s presidency, the state’s effort to procure 9 600MW of nuclear power through Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear group was halted in 2017 when Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environmental Institute filed the court application to stop the nuclear programme.

Mantashe cited a decision by the European Union in 2022 to include nuclear and gas in a taxonomy for green investments. He said this should signal to the rest of the world to include nuclear energy in their plans to transition to low-carbon emissions.

Last year, Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa announced that the country was going ahead with its plan to add 2 500MW of nuclear capacity which will be completed in 10 to 12 years as stipulated in the Integrated Resource Plan of 2019.

At the time, Ramokgopa said that building the stations would take time, but the country was planning ahead to avoid generation shortages that the country currently has.

Delegates at this week’s Energy Indaba lobbied for nuclear power and gas as the primary clean solutions for South Africa’s energy crisis. They argued that nuclear power is the cheapest, safest and most reliable option for the country’s transition.

But energy expert Mark Borchers said the other experts must explain why nuclear is a better option, considering that it is slow and expensive to build.

Speaking at a panel discussion, chief executive of the South African National Energy Development Institute Titus Mathe said there was a need for Africa to have reliable energy to combat poverty, while also acknowledging the importance of transitioning to cleaner energy. He added that nuclear, gas and coal can provide employment.

Spring Lights Gas chief executive Mzi Tyhokolo said South Africa must be unapologetic about its plans to support gas and nuclear technologies because of their ability to provide baseload. 

The view that certain kinds of plants are better at supplying power in large, continuously available quantities — a so-called “baseload” — has been used to counter the claim that renewables are the best solution to the country’s energy crisis.