HomeFeatures/AnalysisInvesting in nuclear energy makes sense for energy security

Investing in nuclear energy makes sense for energy security

Sethakgi Kgomo, a Corporate Governance Practitioner and Legal Analyst based in Johannesburg, undertook to understand the current nuclear energy programme and its role in energy security by speaking to three specialists knowledgeable on the topic.

Kgomo spoke with Phumzile Tshelane, former CEO of Necsa (South African Nuclear Energy Corporation); Knox Msebenzi MD of NIASA (Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa), and Rob Jeffrey, a prominent independent economist and former MD of Econometrix.

ESI Africa presents Kgomo’s conclusions, resulting from his discussions.

Like all countries across the world, South Africa has inevitably entered a period called ‘energy transition’, as international pressure mounts on countries to drastically reduce the production of carbon dioxide which some claim affects global warming.

This message was reinforced by Heads of State at the recent multilateral conference on climate change, COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland where South Africa was represented. The push for the expansion of so-called renewable energy (RE) sources, to transition from coal as a traditional baseload energy source, has failed to take into account the importance of energy sustainability which is critical for economic, industrial and domestic requirements. The REs (especially solar and wind) cannot be energy-sustainable without the backup of reliable baseload energy sources from coal and nuclear.

Despite an ‘anti-nuclear lobby’ worldwide aimed at discrediting it, nuclear remains the best option to ensure a sustainable supply of electricity the world over, while addressing the CO2 concerns. Realising this, South Africa has embarked on a 2,500MW nuclear expansion programme.

There are approximately 140 South Africans working on the UAE (nuclear) project.

There is no doubt that set-up costs for a nuclear power plant are substantial in the short- to medium-term, but these costs will be offset by the enduring long-term benefits in producing a sustainable supply of electricity. The South African nuclear energy build project will have positive socio-economic spinoffs and security in terms of immediate economic activity and job creation. South Africa has an abundance of skills for any nuclear project.

Pumzile Tselane, a nuclear scientist and former CEO of Necsa, states: “South Africa has the nuclear-specific competence, as indicated by the nuclear skills deployed by the United Arab Emirates in their successful nuclear build programme. Key personnel on the UAE build are primarily South African. (There are approximately 140 South Africans working on the UAE project). The other skills required in energy, civils, construction, and operation are all available locally,” says Tselane.

It is therefore rational to consider nuclear power in this energy transition, for the purposes of creating sustainability in the energy supply. “The benefits are tremendous. This development will bring much-needed employment both in the construction phase and the operation. A lot of infrastructure will be developed. Housing for the labour force will be erected. Shopping malls, schools, and clinics will be built. Road infrastructure will be expanded. No such developments have happened for wind and solar plants,” says Knox Msebenzi, MD of NIASA.

What are the considerations for the choice of a site?

According to Msebenzi, the choice of a site for a nuclear power plant is a very comprehensive process consisting of technical, social, economic, political, security and other considerations.

He adds that technical issues include the consideration that the site is seismologically stable. It also takes into consideration the position of the site with respect to load centres.

“For instance, Cape Town’s Koeberg nuclear power plant was chosen to provide energy security to the Western Cape’s biggest city, which is very far from the main source of electricity from Mpumalanga, where the coal is situated.” 

We have lots of uranium, so let’s use it to boil seawater and capture the steam to turn it into drinking water.

Another consideration is water and noting that a geographical fact is that South Africa is a water-scarce country. “The location of a nuclear plant presents an opportunity for water desalination to provide potable water to the local area. To give a perspective, Saudi Arabia (and indeed other Arab countries) hardly have any rain but they are endowed with oil, which they have been using as the source of energy to boil water and condense it as potable water,” says Msebenzi.

Msebenzi further pointed out that: “We have lots of uranium, so let’s use it to boil seawater and capture the steam to turn it into drinking water. The Jeffreys Bay area is renowned for water scarcity, especially during the high-consumption holiday seasons. If we build Thyspunt, we will alleviate this problem once and for all.” 

Msebenzi’s opinions are shared by Rob Jeffrey, an independent economic risk assessment consultant, who says: “The Eastern Province is a depressed area with unemployment running well above the national average. It is essential to increase South Africa’s economic growth, and the economic growth of its regions. Secure electricity at competitive prices is a necessary condition for growth. A nuclear power station at Thyspunt would fill all these requirements.”

Jeffrey adds: “It is a long-term project starting almost immediately after it is approved. Being a sizeable long-term project would lead to employment and a substantial improvement in the entire region’s infrastructure. Finally, it would increase the supply of reliable electricity, not just regionally but also nationally. 

“This would immediately increase employment and reduce the unemployment of the area. The only question that needs to be asked is why are the national and regional governments dragging their feet over such a crucial and obvious decision.”

Tselane says: “The Thyspunt nuclear site has been studied for over 20 years, and has been found suitable both technically and from the point of view of proximity to an area, Eastern Cape, that requires energy-intensive industrial development as the economy of the area is depressed.”

Challenging the perceived skills, technical and financial risks of nuclear energy

Apart from the benefits of nuclear energy in terms of sustainability of supply, I asked the experts what the inherent or residual risks of nuclear power are.

“The dangers are minimal. Any human endeavour has the potential to disrupt the status quo of any environment, but the issue is to weigh the benefits against the risks and to manage the risks. A lot is said about nuclear radiation. Nuclear power plants are the safest when it comes to radiation. There is more natural radiation in the environment than in a nuclear power plant,” explains Msebenzi.

On the question of the cost of building a nuclear power plant, Msebenzi said: “It is argued that around 70% of the cost of a nuclear power plant lies in civil works. The other 30% is split between the items on the nuclear island and the rest of the plant. Almost all mechanical, electrical and control equipment can be locally sourced. The first unit may require a bit more to be imported. The subsequent units (as the localisation increases) will require less and less foreign expenditure”.

Does South Africa have the skills to handle a big operation, like building a nuclear power station? Msebenzi gives this assurance: “South Africa already has competence, as we have built Koeberg and other thermal power stations. Admittedly, some of the skills have left the country, as they were attracted to countries with running programmes such as UAE, US, UK and Canada.

“We have the infrastructure to develop young skills to take up these challenges. Our universities and FET colleges are ready to assist. Those who argue that Medupi and Kusile coal stations are examples of our failures to run successful projects fail to realise that it was not due to a lack of engineering or project management skills. It was the failure of governance – corruption by even large international corporations that lead to the massive delays and cost overruns on those projects. Look at how we did the Gautrain and the World Cup stadia.”

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Jeffrey, in support of Msebenzi, states: “South Africa has proved time and time again in the past that it can run megaprojects. The country’s engineering and project management skills are in demand currently, all over the world. The second mistruth is the implication that all costs have to be paid for upfront. Before these projects begin to come on stream, there are long planning horizons, incubation periods, major start-up costs, site preparation costs, etc. The costs are, in fact, spread over several years. 

“In fact, that is what the country should be doing right away to ensure these reliable supply sources of energy can start coming on stream and supplying electricity by about 2026. South Africa should rather be spending its money now, instead of buying short-term, unreliable, unproven renewable energy. It is unsuitable to meet the country’s economic demand growth, particularly for the development of its mining, manufacturing, industrial and agribusiness growth.”

General views on nuclear technology

Has the public been adequately informed about nuclear power and nuclear technology? Msebenzi laments that there has generally not been enough education given on nuclear technology at various levels of society, including the Government and the nuclear industry.

“The nuclear industry (of which I am part) has not done enough either. A lot more outreach programmes are needed. The purpose of the outreach is to debunk the myths and fear-mongering spread by anti-nuclear propagandists. That being said, I personally do not think it is necessary for people to understand nuclear technology to accept it. How many people understand aeronautics, but fly in planes every day? The important people that matter are the policymakers and politicians; to have a clear vision and conviction about what they want to do and the public will come along.” 

Jeffrey agrees. “Megaprojects, such as a significant power station project, meet many of the economic development policy needs of South Africa and southern Africa.  Based on economic arguments and facts, major power station projects for coal and nuclear will make a substantial positive economic and socio-economic impact with particular regard to the development needs of South Africa. While power station build programmes are themselves capital intensive, with a high capital cost per job created, such projects offer South Africa considerable benefits.” 

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The world, including South Africa, has been particularly preoccupied with ‘clean energy,’ within the context of worldwide concerns about the phenomenon of ‘global warming’. Against this background, there is a strong lobby for renewable energy, including wind and solar and less emphasis on nuclear power.

How misdirected is the world on RE and how can it be that nuclear is not so much promoted? Msebenzi strongly argues that the campaign against global warming is premised on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Nuclear does not emit any greenhouse gas. The definition of green energy is an all-encompassing term referring to energy that does not emit GHGs while being produced. ‘Just transition’ is a term coined by the international labour movement to protect workers’ rights in terms of loss of jobs and livelihoods, as the world moves away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy.

“The anti-nuclear lobbyists have hijacked the definitions to mean a move to solar and wind etc, as renewable energy sources. It has been done for self-interests by entities and individuals who stand to make money in the short term by bombarding the planet with these units, plunging the world into chaos. Issues of grid stability and reliability of supply have not been addressed. While renewable energy waste has not been addressed.”

After talking to these three experts it certainly seems clear to me that the government needs to move much faster to implement the real start of construction on the excellent nuclear expansion plan which has been initiated. ESI

Sethakgi J. Kgomo (ENSP) is a Corporate Governance Practitioner and Legal Analyst, based in Johannesburg, South Africa

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