HomeFeatures/AnalysisUnpacking the history behind South Africa’s nuclear sector and future build programme

Unpacking the history behind South Africa’s nuclear sector and future build programme

Nuclear engineering specialist and programme manager, Nuclear Engineering at the North-West University, Dr Anthonie Cilliers, draws a thorough timeline following the inception of the new nuclear build programme in South Africa, through his own personal research and experience. 
When reading the news, I am very often confronted with articles on South Africa’s Nuclear plans opening with, “The controversial nuclear deal” or “The nuclear programme that has been veiled in secrecy”—Sometimes even both of these lines in one sentence—When I read this, I cannot help to wonder, from my simplistic understanding of the media and politics, what is controversial about the programme? What is veiled in secrecy? In this article I am constructing a timeline of the progress of the nuclear build plans in South Africa based solely on publicly available information.

Year: 1993

From 1993, South Africa was developing the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) together with international partners. This was a new type of reactor and in 2006 it was recognised that due to uncertainty on the success of the project, South Africa needed to look at alternative electricity sources while the PBMR project was underway.

Year: 2006

In early 2006, government announced that it was considering building an additional conventional nuclear plant, possibly at Koeberg, to boost supplies in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces. This would typically be of similar technology that is used at Koeberg – Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) technology.

To support this process an  Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was started in 2006 confirming the selection of three possible sites for the next nuclear power units: Thyspunt (Eastern Cape), Bantamsklip (Western Cape), and Duynefontein, (close to the existing Koeberg nuclear plant).

Year: 2007-2008

The Eskom board approved a plan in early 2007 to double generation capacity to 80GWe by 2025, including the construction of 20GWe of new nuclear capacity so that nuclear contribution to power would rise from 5% to more than 25% and coal’s contribution would fall from 87% to below 70%.

The new programme was planned to start with up to 4GWe of PWR capacity to be built from 2010, with the first unit to be commissioned in 2016. The environmental assessment process for this ‘Nuclear-1’ project, which was looking at five potential sites and the preferred selection of technology, was to follow in 2008.

In late 2007 to early 2008, Eskom was hit by supply constraints which resulted in load shedding and subsequently sparked a nationwide drive to decrease electricity demand. This resulted in severe economic growth limitations which is still hampering economic development – as confirmed by the nine-point plan to respond to sluggish growth mentioned by President Jacob Zuma in the 2016 state-of-the-nation address: “Resolving the energy challenge”. Economic growth requires industrial development that can only be supported by large-scale stable baseload electricity supply.

It was at this point that the procurement process of Nuclear-1, a turn-key project, kicked off and Areva’s EPR and Westinghouse AP1000 were short-listed. Areva headed a consortium including South African engineering group Aveng, French construction group Bouygues and EDF, which submitted a bid to supply two 1,600MWe EPR units. Westinghouse in-turn offered three 1,134MWe AP1000 units. The Westinghouse-led consortium included the Shaw Group and the South African engineering firm Murray & Roberts.

In December 2008, Eskom announced that it would not proceed with either of the bids from Areva and Westinghouse, due to the lack of finance. The limited funds were due to the turn-key nature of the project, and it was decided to pursue a fleet approach that included technology transfer and contracted localisation to ensure affordability for future plans.

Year: 2010

Despite the cancelation of the Nuclear-1 bidding process, the EIA process continued and a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was published in March 2010, recommending the Thyspunt site in the Eastern Cape province near Oyster Bay, Jeffrey’s Bay and Cape St Francis.

[quote]In October, the Department of Energy (DoE) released its draft Integrated Electricity Resource Plan (IRP) for 2010-2030, outlining the country’s electricity demand; how this demand might be supplied; and what it is likely to cost.

Its balanced scenario represents the best trade-off between least-investment cost, climate change mitigation, diversity of supply, localisation, and regional development. The IRP requires 52GWe of new capacity by 2030, and assuming 3.4GWe of demand-side savings.

Year: 2011

After public consultation the IRP was revised and approved by cabinet. According to this scenario, South Africa’s generation mix by 2030 should include: 48% coal; 13.4% nuclear; 6.5% hydro, 14.5% other renewables; 11% peaking open cycle gas turbine. This means that at least 9.6MWe of new nuclear capacity by 2030 is included in the plan.

Areva increased its involvement with the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa), and was joined by Rosatom in 2013 who declared its interest in bidding.

Bids for the nuclear programme were expected to open in 2014 so that the selected contractor could be on site in 2016, with a prediction that the first unit would be operational by 2023. Initially about 30% local content was expected in the project and could expect to rise to 40% at a later stage.

In November the National Nuclear Energy Executive Coordination Committee (NNEECC) was established as the authority for decision-making, monitoring, and general oversight of the nuclear energy expansion programme. Cabinet endorsed a “phased decision-making approach for implementation of the nuclear programme”, along with the “designation of Eskom as the owner-operator as per the Nuclear Energy Policy of 2008”. One month later, the energy minister announced that around $50 billion would be spent on nuclear capacity to 2030.

Year: 2013

An IAEA Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) was carried out and later followed by an agreement signed by Necsa with Russia’s NIAEP-Atomstroyexport, and its subsidiary Nukem Technologies, to develop a strategic partnership, which included nuclear power plant and waste management with financial assistance from Russia.

Commenting on this, Rosatom said that it “offers South Africa to build the entire process chain of NPP construction and operation.” The strategic partnership implies joint implementation of the national nuclear power development programme of South Africa. The key project is construction of new NPPs with the Russian VVER reactors totalling 9.6GW (up to 8 power units) in South Africa.

“Besides, the parties intend to build a research reactor to the Russian technology, which would lay the basis for joint business in the area of isotope production and sales in the international market.”

Year: 2014

The 2014 state-of-the-nation address was the first SONA where the nuclear programme was mentioned explicitly with Zuma saying: “We continue to explore other sources of energy, in line with the Integrated Resource Plan for Energy. […] Having evaluated the risks and opportunities, the final regulations will be released soon and will be followed by the processing and granting of licenses. We expect to conclude the procurement of nine thousand six hundred megawatts of nuclear energy.”

Rosatom signed an agreement with South Africa’s Energy Minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, in September to advance the prospect of building up to 9.6GWe of nuclear capacity by 2030. The minister said: “This agreement opens up the door for South Africa to access Russian technologies, funding, infrastructure, and provides proper and solid platform for future extensive collaboration.”

It is expected to involve some $10 billion in local supply chain provision, with localisation of 60%. Necsa later said that the new agreement “initiates a preparatory phase for the procurement process for the new nuclear build in South Africa. Similar agreements will be signed with other vendor countries that have expressed an interest in assisting South Africa with the build programme. No vendor country has been chosen yet and no technology has been decided. The agreement refers only to what Russia could provide if chosen.”

In October a nuclear cooperation agreement with France was signed. On this, Joemat-Pettersson said: “This paves the way for establishing a nuclear procurement process.” Areva welcomed the agreement, and said that it was ready to support the development of new South African nuclear projects, “notably through its Generation III+ EPR reactor technology.”

A similar inter-governmental cooperation agreement was signed with China in November. The energy ministry said that the agreement “initiates the preparatory phase for a possible utilisation of Chinese nuclear technology in South Africa.”

Three further agreements in December were established between Necsa and China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) to enable a cooperative partnership supporting the country’s nuclear industry, between SNPTC, the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China and South Africa’s Standard Bank Group.

Year: 2015

In February, Necsa signed a further skills development and training agreement with SNPTC and China General Nuclear Power Corp (CGN), of which China is funding around 95%. Agreements with the US and South Korea were put in place, and a further agreement is pending with Japan.

The president’s annual state-of-the-nation address in February 2015 reaffirmed the 9.6GWe target with the first unit expected to come on line in 2023. The president highlighted that bids would be sought from the US, China, France, Russia and South Korea. In May, the energy minister said that the procurement process for the new nuclear power plant would begin in September, and she expected that a strategic partner would be selected by March 2016. In June Eskom ceded control of the new build programme to the DoE.

In addition, the DoE issued its Strategic Plan 2015-2020, which was approved by the minister of energy. Here the nuclear power and technology is mentioned as a strategic driver to transform the South African economy: “The DoE further aims that both traditional and green energy will be expanded to ensure a platform for growth and social inclusion. This will include the use of nuclear power for baseload energy generation, which will be used in a safe and environmentally sustainable manner. […] “In terms of the approved Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), nuclear energy will play a key role to support the baseload generation capacity in the energy future of our country, given the need for the country to decarbonise […].

Meanwhile, the EIA was in its final public review period from 23 September to 25 November 2015 and in December 2015, following cabinet approval, the DoE issued its Request for Proposal for 9,600MWe nuclear power capacity.

Year: 2016

Zuma delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address in February, where he again confirmed the 9.6GWe nuclear capacity target: “The nuclear energy expansion programme remains part of the future energy mix. Our plan is to introduce 9,600MW of nuclear energy in the next decade, in addition to running Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant. We will test the market to ascertain the true cost of building modern nuclear plants. Let me emphasise that we will only procure nuclear on a scale and pace that our country can afford.” During the same month, Joemat-Pettersson recommended that the nuclear programme be incorporated into the independent power producer (IPP) office.

Early this month (March 2016), the final EIA report was submitted to the department of environmental affairs for approval.

The Department of Energy, Director General, Thabane Zulu, announced on March 9, that South Africa plans to issue a request for proposals to build at much as 9,600MW of nuclear power generation capacity by the end of the month.

Zulu said: “The project-cycle pipeline that we have put in place is to do it at the end of the March,” and that “the markets will determine what will be the best, cost- effective method. The state can then look at the results and “be better positioned to decide on the course.”

In conclusion, it is evident that since 2007 plans for a new nuclear build programme has been well communicated, transparent and with an open platform created for public participation. Plans were often adjusted to allow for financial and other constraints, whilst throughout the entire process a very clear strategic intent is indicated that nuclear power and its technology has the potential to change the face of the South African economy – I like to call it, allowing South Africa to pick itself up by its bootstraps.

To me the message is very clear— when it comes to nuclear power, South Africa is absolutely committed to find a way to do it right. Those of us who believe in the potential it holds for the country, we will continue to work tirelessly to assist to do it right.


Nuclear engineering specialist and
programme manager, Nuclear
Engineering at the North-West University, Dr Anthonie Cilliers

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).


Home page photo: Nuclear, gawkerassets


Dr Anthonie Cilliers is a panelist at the upcoming African Utility Week in May. Hosted by the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (niasa), Cilliers will be joined by other nuclear experts to discuss ‘The future of nuclear power in the coming energy transition’. 

Ashley Theron
Ashley Theron-Ord is based in Cape Town, South Africa at Clarion Events-Africa. She is the Senior Content Producer across media brands including ESI Africa, Smart Energy International, Power Engineering International and Mining Review Africa.