South Africa operates the only Nuclear Power Plant (Koeberg, consisting of two reactors, producing almost 2,000MW) on the African continent, currently producing the cheapest electricity on the Eskom power grid, and producing zero carbon emissions.
When it comes to examining the most suitable power generation technologies, we often lose track of what we are trying to achieve when we are blinded by ideology, writes Dr Anthonie Cilliers, nuclear engineering specialist.
The SAFARI-1 research reactor is the second largest producer of medical isotopes internationally, saving countless lives worldwide on a daily basis.
Incidentally, the science of producing medical isotopes are the exact same science used to produce electricity, or even nuclear weapons. South Africa chooses to use this science for peaceful purposes.
The PBMR project that was active in South Africa started in the 1990s and was active for almost two decades, producing knowledge and expertise sought after internationally to this very day. The South African government is still supporting research in nuclear technology in a number of ways, and it appears that the support is expanding.
In 1989 South Africa became the first and only country to voluntarily end its nuclear weapons programme and dismantle all nuclear weapons.
South Africa is the example of using nuclear technology in a responsible and safe way, making a difference in the lives of thousands of people locally and abroad. In this regard, no other country has a better story to tell than South Africa.
South Africa nuclear energy bench marking against global best practice
Yet, in keeping with our South African character, we tend to sell ourselves short. We rather look at other countries for examples on how we should do things. The most common example often cited when it comes to energy and nuclear technology, is that of Germany.
Germany made a conscious decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022. This means that the zero carbon emitting power plants (17 reactors producing around 12,000MW) of electricity.
The Germans are replacing nuclear power with so called renewable energy sources, the plan being to gain an early advantage in the renewable power industry at whatever the cost.
As part of this phase out plan, 40,000MW of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels were subsidised and installed throughout the country. It is often cited that this resulted in a price drop from $5,000 per kW initially to $1,000 per kW and hailed as a success.
When investigating it closer, this price drop was due to the industrialisation and relocation of most of the manufacturing operations in China, incidentally now utilising the most carbon expensive energy grid on the planet to produce these panels.
At today’s prices ($1,000 per kW) those panels would cost $40 billion, yet in Germany it produces only 14% of the installed capacity on average annually (in South Africa this figure is 22%).
To put this into perspective, in 2014, the 40,000MW of PV panels produced 32.8TWh of electricity, this is equivalent to 3,744MW installed capacity, less than 10% of the actual installed capacity.
It is also cited that on the 8th of May, Germany managed to power its entire electricity grid with renewable energy sources. This is considered a sign of the potential of renewable energy.
Well, if you spend the money to install enough capacity to supply an entire grid of a country, and yet, it is only able to do that on a single day in a year, this is a sign of the clear limitations of the energy source. Beyond energy, in no other industry will such a business case be accepted.
Nuclear power is no more expensive than any other energy source when measured in electricity generation capability
Carbon emissions in Germany have increased since the decision was made. Policy makers believe this is a temporary increase.
In 2016 the German government halted all research funding into nuclear technologies, effectively halting all progress and advancements in the nuclear field.
The common reasons cited for these dramatic decisions in Germany, is the concern for nuclear safety after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011 that resulted in the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – an accident that had zero fatalities.
The nuclear industry is historically the safest industry in the world, it has less fatalities and injuries associated with it, than any other industry
Germany in the meantime maintains an arsenal of twenty B61-12 nuclear bombs at the Büchel airbase with no plans to change this.
Across the Rhine river, France produces 74% of its entire power supply from nuclear power, exporting some of it to Germany. France is currently the industrialised economy with the lowest carbon footprint.
Renewables are not totally off the cards and deserve credit
It may seem like I am deliberately trying to discredit renewable energy sources, but this is not the case.
Renewable energy sources have a role to play, investment in research and development in this field over the last decade has resulted in massive progress in the effectiveness of the technology.
What I am trying to point out is that we often lose track of what we are trying to achieve when we are blinded by ideology.
The United Nations Resolution 70/1, “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” states: Universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services and in particular to reliable electric energy, is central to human development, social stability, and world peace.
Also, “Sustainable energy policies must be driven by the global challenges due to climate change and population growth (in particular urban) Carbon-free energy sources must replace greenhouse gas emitting energy sources” (United Nations, Treaty Series, 1771, 30822).
Nuclear energy has proven internationally that when used for electricity production it emits virtually zero greenhouse gasses and therefore has the potential to contribute significantly to the United Nations sustainability goals and therefore must be part of the global long-term sustainable energy mix.
Not only this, but with continued research and development, significant opportunities exist for new ultra-safe nuclear technology systems that can be developed to provide abundant supercritical steam for chemical reforming and bulk conversion of both hydrocarbon-based fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas, and of solid or liquid wastes into environmentally clean energy forms such as hydrogen.
These future plant designs could also provide energy for large scale desalination that will be needed to meet increasing global water demands for irrigation in continually expanding arid regions.
Unfortunately, in many countries, as stated above, a wide-ranging fraction of society and consequently, political and energy policy decision makers are not aware of these sustainable benefits and opportunities of future nuclear energy solutions. As a result, overall support and understanding of the potential is diminished and the legitimacy of the future use of nuclear energy as a sustainable energy option is being discredited. I do not believe this is the case in South Africa.
As nuclear professionals we also need to accept that this sentiment is supported by existing barriers such as the high capital costs, the technical risks, and the long timelines needed for research and development to realise socially acceptable future nuclear technologies.
I do not believe that professionals working in the nuclear industry are blind to the challenges we face to realise the full potential of the energy that lies in the nucleus of the atom.
No other energy source has the potential to change the world for the better than nuclear energy. We will face the challenges and we will find ways to overcome them.
The next chapter in the story of nuclear technology in South Africa is yet to be written. Nuclear energy is making a massive difference for the better today, but we are not even close to reaching its full potential.
South Africa has the potential to lead in achieving this.
Anthonie is a Nuclear Engineering specialist with a PhD Nuclear Engineering and M.Eng (Computer & Electronic) degrees. He works at the North-West University as Programme Manager: Nuclear Engineering and as research lead on numerous projects.
Anthonie also specialises in Nuclear Knowledge Management where he is the initiator and coordinator of the national academic network, “South African Network for Nuclear Education, Science and Technology” (SAN-NEST).