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Prof Johan Slabber is an expert panellist at the upcoming Nuclear Power Africa, taking place alongside African Utility Week in Cape Town in May.
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Exclusive interview with Professor Johan Slabber, professor in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Pretoria

What is your response to President Zuma’s remarks on South Africa’s nuclear future during the SONA on Thursday 11 Feb?

South Africa needs additional power generating capacity as soon as possible. Wind and solar power will not provide an answer because of the storage requirement when the wind is not blowing and the sun not shining. Coal power causes greenhouse gas emission and although the RSA has coal supplies which may be sufficient the economy of a coal plant requires that it should be located in very close proximity to the coal mine.

These stations should also be cooled and the combination of the availability of the fuel (coal) and the cooling water at one site is very problematic in the RSA.

The use of dry cooling towers lowers the overall efficiency of the plant. Nuclear power provides an excellent general solution to our needs. The plants can be built along the shore where cooling water is abundant and since its fuel supply does not pose the same problems as coal the distance from the fuel supply point is not a concern. So to cut a long story short, I am very excited that we will be embarking on the nuclear option for expansion of our supply system.

Should South Africans be worried?

Contrary to what people think and believe, nuclear power provides by FAR the safest option. It also compares virtually on a one to one basis with coal when it comes to the costing.

Although the capital cost is somewhat higher to start with, its running cost is much lower. Also its waste production is, on a mass of waste produced per unit of power produced so very much smaller than coal, it can be managed in a very professional way with excellent record keeping of each gram of nuclear waste produced.

Is nuclear the right choice for South Africa?

Nuclear is the only way to go forward.

Can you share any specific nuclear projects that you are involved in currently that you are particularly excited about?

I am teaching “Nuclear Engineering” at the University of Pretoria and have a sizeable number of very clever and hardworking students that will definitely be part of the future nuclear program of the RSA.

I was part of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project for years up to the point where it was stopped through a lack of funds. This reactor was inherently safe and its design is now taken further by the Chinese and I am sure that it will be one of the concepts taken forward in the next generation nuclear plant internationally.

You are part of a discussion at the upcoming Nuclear Power Africa in May in Cape Town on “Advanced nuclear technologies available today and in the near future” – what will be your message at the event?

South Africa should again revitalize its development of the High Temperature Reactor (such as the PBMR). Small units should be considered for decentralized deployment close to load centers and therefore independent of the distribution network.

It may also consider building them on the west coast where the cooling water is colder and then use the waste heat to produce fresh water by desalinating sea water. This water can be pumped inland to enhance our scarce water supplies.

Anything you would like to add?

The Koeberg Nuclear Power Station has been running smoothly now for more than 30 years. Its load factor is 90% plus, compared to coal fired stations which run at 75%. It is the “cash cow” at the moment for Eskom. So with this as a clear example of a reliable and safe technology why hesitate any longer?