As the social grants queues get longer, and inequality gets wider, the high hopes of a nation which over two decades ago achieved a miraculous peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy are now only a distant dream. Today’s stagnating economy and the accompanying collapse in investment aren’t what political leaders envisaged in 1994. The brutal truth now is that South Africa simply cannot afford to stay on its current trajectory.
Gross fixed capital formation has been hovering in the region of 20% of GDP with a noticeable decline in 2016 (-3.3%). It’s a long way below the BRICS average of 28% and less than half of that in China. In Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Mozambique – all countries in the region bar Zimbabwe – the indicator is about 30%, 1.5 times higher.
No wonder that over the last 5 years GDP growth rates in South Africa have been on average about half of those neighbouring countries. From a promising market-leading position in southern Africa, this beautiful resource rich country, with its talented and ambitious people, is squandering its inheritance and is in danger of sliding backwards towards third world status.
Recognising this, the government has published the National Development Plan (NDP) – a long-term growth and development path for the country. The provision of adequate infrastructure to support development initiatives is identified as a key success factor and is welcome. Long-term infrastructure projects that will bring about real change to as much of the population as possible should, and must, be prioritised. That is why investing in nuclear power must be one of the highest priorities to give a much needed shot in the arm to the economy.
Not only should nuclear be a top infrastructure priority, decisions to go ahead with new nuclear must be made very soon. The country cannot afford to wait until 2037 to see its first new nuclear units come online. Since I spoke at Nuclear Africa last year, the future of nuclear seems to have taken two steps forward and one step back in a difficult economic time. The Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity published last November effectively set back greater adoption of new nuclear.
I hope that the Government will now consider the representations from across the energy sector to revise the plan and prioritise development of new nuclear. With the imminent deadline for submission of the new nuclear build programme, minds must be concentrated to give nuclear a favourable future. Everyone needs certainty to be able to invest and progress.
Nuclear is an ideal investment for South Africa’s needs. According to the Trusted Sources report we presented last year, at the highest plausible localisation level of 45%, the multiplier effect of this industrial investment on GDP would be 3.4x.
The monetary value of the incremental value added in current US dollars would be over $77 billion (close to one quarter of the country’s current GDP).
Nothing comparable can be achieved by investment in renewable energy in South Africa, all of whose components would have to be imported from Asia. Delaying new nuclear build till 2037 will simply stunt its growth while threatening the security of the power supply.
Investing in nuclear power will result in the development of local supply chains that can produce components not only for the South African nuclear power plants but for plants across the globe. Skills development in the sciences, maths and engineering will grow as demand for these skills matches the increase in investment in energy.
South Africa will have the opportunity to improve their opportunities to become global energy leaders. Furthermore, such large-scale, long-term investments offer government an opportunity to develop black industrialists who can participate in the building of power plants and the supply of goods and services to the nuclear industry.
Clearly developing nuclear and reducing the reliance on coal will also help to meet important climate change targets. Another benefit, often not mentioned, will be to the health of the nation. South Africa’s dependency on coal for 70% of its primary energy needs is damaging the health of communities.
Due to fine particle pollution, coal causes 100 premature deaths per 1 billion kWh generated. In South Africa, that translates into at least 20,000 premature deaths a year. A 10-year delay would mean that clean nuclear generation would be substituted not with renewables (which are still intermittent) but with coal. It is clear that tens of thousands of premature deaths will be avoided if South Africa starts its new build programme now, without delay.
The opportunity for South Africa
To think of South Africa’s energy needs in terms of today’s, or even the next five years’ demand, is to rob the country of the future it deserves. Nuclear energy will provide South Africa with a low carbon baseload power source at a predetermined cost that will help transform the entire country.
With countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana moving ahead with nuclear ambitions and leading nations like the UK, the US, France, China and Canada continuing with their respective nuclear energy programs, it is certainly time that South Africa follows suit or risk being left in the dark.
Tim Yeo is a former UK Conservative MP and Environment Minister. He now chairs New Nuclear Watch Europe and the University of Sheffield Industrial Advisory Board for the Energy 2050 initiative. He is also a Board member of Eurotunnel and Chairman of AFC Energy.
Tim helped to found NNWE at the end of 2014 to help ensure nuclear power is recognised as an important and desirable way for European governments to provide affordable, secure, low carbon energy and help to meet the long-term energy needs of their citizens.
Featured image: 123rf