HomeFeatures/AnalysisOp-Ed: Prospects of nuclear power generation in SA’s energy mix

Op-Ed: Prospects of nuclear power generation in SA’s energy mix

Since the introduction of Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant in 1984 in South Africa, the prospects of nuclear technology have not had a smooth trajectory. It remains the only nuclear power generation in Africa writes Knox Msebenzi, the managing director of NIASA.

Knox Msebenzi, MD of NIASA
Knox Msebenzi, MD of NIASA

At one stage, around 2007, the country’s power utility Eskom got a go-ahead to have as much as 20,000MW new nuclear installed. The approach adopted by the government was not so much to procure nuclear power plants but to build a capability by localising the industry in an aggressive way.

This is when the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA) was formed. It was envisaged that, like South Korea, South Africa would at worst become a major player in the nuclear supply chain all over the world and at best become an exporter of the technology in its own right.

This dream was on the brink of materialising with the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), when a political decision to terminate the programme was taken.

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) of 2010 – 2030 made a provision for a reduced amount of nearly 10,000MW, owing mainly to the entrance of renewable energy as a new source of power, largely embraced by the international community riding on the wave of climate change and other environmental considerations of sustainability.

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The energy mix debate in South Africa attracted a lot of interest from international and local Non-Governmental and Civic Organisations, whose thrust was to lump nuclear technology with coal as anathema to the environment and, therefore, arguing nuclear technology must be wiped out of the face of the earth.

The environmental argument was augmented with the anti-fossil fuel lobby, cost issues and the linkage to corruption labelled against nuclear. A figure of R1 trillion as the cost of nuclear was peddled in the media until it was taken as fact by the public and some politicians.

There was a rife narrative that basically equated nuclear with corruption. All in all, the debate was highly politicised with all manner of people leading the debate as experts on energy when in many instances the real experts were limited by protocol to enter into it.

The anti-nuclear lobby was thus somewhat successful in waging a protracted campaign to get nuclear thrown out of the IRP and the Draft IRP of 2018 (approved by Cabinet for public comment) reflected only 2,500MW new nuclear by 2030.

The current IRP 2019 states, “In the period prior to 2030, the system requirements are largely for incremental capacity addition (modular) and flexible technology”.

The 2,500MW initially contemplated in IRP 2018 does not appear as the government is emphasizing the approach of small modular reactors, in keeping with the principle of doing it “at a scale and pace that flexibly responds to the economy and associated electricity demand”.

It also states that upfront planning with regard to additional nuclear capacity is requisite, given the greater than 10-year lead time, for timely decision making and implementation. In addition to this, the Government has made a decision regarding the design life extension of Koeberg NPP and the expansion of the nuclear power programme into the future.

In view of these considerations, nuclear does not appear in the new additional capacity up to 2030, but the policy is very clear that work must begin forthwith to realise this goal.

NIASA also believes that it would be wise to have a contingency plan to add reliable baseload power should the 2,500MW Inga hydropower be either delayed or does not materialise. Besides, as we decommission coal plants, they should be replaced by another source of reliable dispatchable power.

The Water-Energy Nexus identified in the IRP 2019 offers a huge opportunity for further nuclear expansion. South Africa is endowed with uranium (and other potential nuclear fuels) and conjunctive deployment of small modular reactors in coastal areas for electricity generation and water desalination is a low hanging fruit.

Water is a commodity that, unlike electricity, can easily be stored. All the coastal areas are currently receiving power mainly from Mpumalanga. If nuclear plants are erected in these coastal areas, any plant failures on the remaining coal plants could be mitigated by loadshedding water desalination capacity, without installing any additional transmission capacity.

There are countries with highly populated cities in this world who have never heard about ‘Day Zero’ like was the case in Cape Town recently and yet some of these places do not get a drop of rain. They use their natural endowments to literally boil seawater and condense the steam into potable water.

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In fact, if sufficient capacity is installed, it would be possible to turn certain areas in the Northern Cape and the Karoo into green zones, for instance. The Middle East could provide ample and appropriate case studies for South Africa to emulate.

One of the adjectives commonly used to describe nuclear power plants is that they are inflexible. To some extent that is true because they have been designed that way. If it does not make a difference cost-wise, whether one is running at 30% or 100% capacity, why would one want to reduce the power output, hence they are designed to run flat out.

The French power system, because of its high proportion of nuclear in the energy mix, has nuclear plants with load following capabilities incorporated at the design stage. The expansion of nuclear power generation would provide the necessary bedrock to further develop many other nuclear technologies that are not power related.

Examples that come to mind are nuclear applications in medicine, agriculture and industry. In medicine, the well-known radioisotope manufacturing plant at Pelindaba is a case in point. Nuclear technologies are also used in a variety of applications in disease control and irradiation of fruits and vegetables to give them long shelf life.

A scaling down of the nuclear power programme may have an undesirable negative knock-on effect on other nuclear technologies. As the undisputed industrial leader on the African continent, it is absolutely prudent that we strengthen our civil nuclear capability. Many African countries have either embarked or are about to on some nuclear programme.

It is no secret that they would be looking forward to getting assistance in doing so. This will not be on a charity basis but a business opportunity to export skills and expertise. All our BRICS counterparts are seriously pursuing both nuclear and renewable energy.

NIASA, therefore, believes the future of nuclear is very bright.

Op-Ed by Knox Msebenzi, managing director of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA).

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