HomeEvent NewsSouth Africa weighs big block nuclear vs small modular reactors

South Africa weighs big block nuclear vs small modular reactors

South Africa recently committed to a 2500MW nuclear newbuild programme and has issued the request for information (RFI). In the NIASA and ESI Africa Digital Dialogue that took place as part of the Digital Energy Festival, a breakdown was presented of the pros and cons of a large-scale nuclear and small modular reactor (SMR) builds in South Africa.

The session, organised by the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA), focussed on providing clarity concerning the technology options and considerations for the new nuclear build. Three core themes were highlighted in terms of their importance during the government’s information gathering process namely; localisation, cost and safety.

Gaopalelwe Santswere, Senior Scientist, and Deputy President of NIASA opened the session highlighting the importance of the country’s nuclear programme and explained that both SMRs and large build programmes offer significant benefits.

ESI Africa Editor, Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl, spoke to a panel of nuclear experts who highlighted the opportunities presented by South Africa’s energy transition, as the role of coal is reimagined and energy security is prioritised.

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According to Riedewaan Bakardien, the chief nuclear officer of South Africa’s state-owned utility Eskom, the RFI published on 14 June 2020 by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy includes technology for traditional light water reactors, as well as small modular reactors. Once the information is gathered, the powers that be will need to decide between traditional large block and small modular reactors, from either China, Russia, Korea or France.

Bakardien explained that in terms of conventional pressurized water reactors, there are a number of commercially viable options available in the market from 1,000 to 1,600MW. Eskom has identified five to 10 options available with high reliability.

Concerning the SMR options, Eskom is looking at an electrical output of 300MW or less. There are currently about 70 projects in development with five in commercial operation. Most SMR projects are at the concept phases with practical maturity being expected post 2030.

#1 Localisation

Des Muller, Director, NuEnergy Developments, spoke about the important aspect of localisation. Due to South Africa’s larger grid capacity, the country can accommodate both large scale nuclear builds and SMRs, with a similar Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) achieved for both. Large scale nuclear has known EPC localisation programmes in place.

However, explains Muller, with regards to SMRs, very little is known about how much can be localised. The country is currently engaged with local players to understand what percentage of localisation can be expected, based on the state of nuclear readiness at the time of the procurement programme.

Des elaborated on the localisation differences between large builds and SMRs throughout the build phases. Currently, there are indications that South Africa will develop the SMR supply chain which will increase localisation and lower costs.

#2 Measuring cost

Dave Nicholls, Board Chairperson, South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) highlighted the importance of economies of scale and how to measure the true cost of a nuclear build project.

According to Nicholls, it all starts with referring to and understanding the learning curve of the first machine. The first machine is always more expensive in terms of the base cost plus contingency cost.

Says Nicholls: “The real question is, if I am going to build 1000MW, is it better to build one machine which is nominally cheaper, but with more uncertainties and learnings, or [is it cheaper to build] ten machines, with the first being more expensive, but the next machine being much cheaper?”

The most important factors when understanding cost effectiveness include:

  • Will it be a large or small plant?
  • Will there be mass production and standardisation?
  • How will it be financed, what is the capital cost and what are the economics of the financing packages?

Nicholls explained that commercial viability must also take into account the reduced operations and maintenance costs being achieved by improved efficiency, stable fuel costs which reduce risk and the high reliability factor, which means less time and money spent on back up power. All these factors provide a more predictable and less risky future cost path for nuclear power.

#3 Safety

Riedewaan Bakardien talked attendees through safety considerations of the RFI. Says Bakardien: “To understand the details is necessary, as reactor technology has been continuously evolving… from generation one to four, each generation advances in terms of cost, safety and performance.”

Bakardien explains that most large scale builds operate on 2nd generation technology. There are some operating on 3rd generation tech, which includes increased passive safety features, reduced probability of accidents through resistance to external impacts, and a higher fuel burn rate, which reduces the amount of waste produced.

SMRs operate with generation four benefits, a modular nature, and the scalability that affords. The design allows its coexistence with renewables and fossil fuels and the production of end products such as thermal energy.

Futher benefits of SMRs include low core power density, lower operating pressures, passive safety systems and natural air and water circulation, all of which allow for safe shut down without human intervention.

Even though the modular components of the SMR solution will reduce costs and minimise production time, is South Africa ready to accommodate this technology?

In order to weigh South Africa’s readiness for either SMR or large block nuclear power, there are many more factors to take into account – commercial needs, long term waste considerations, licensing, economics and needs of the country will determine which option to use.

Webinar speakers included:

Gaopalelwe Santswere, Senior Scientist, Pr.Nat.Sci, Africa Young Generation Nuclear and Deputy President of NIASA, Dave Nicholls, Board Chairperson, South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) Des Muller, Director, NuEnergy Developments Riedewaan Bakardien, Chief Nuclear Officer, Eskom Knox Msebenzi, MD, NIASA.

Digital Energy Festival
The following sessions are still available to watch on demand as part of the Digital Energy Festival for Africa:

   – African Utility Week & POWERGEN Africa sessions, (now Enlit Africa) click here – FREE access
   – ESI Africa sessions, click here – FREE access
   – Oil & Gas Council sessionsclick here

The Digital Energy Festival for Africa in 2020 was hosted jointly by four of Clarion Events’ leading energy brands Africa Energy ForumAfrican Utility Week & POWERGEN Africa (now Enlit Africa) and the Oil & Gas Council’s Africa Assembly and the leading energy journal ESI Africa providing six weeks of compelling content.