HomeFeatures/AnalysisEd's note: Nuclear power sees Groundhog Day

Ed’s note: Nuclear power sees Groundhog Day

Nuclear power is not complicated – nuclear fission heats water to produce steam that spins large turbines that generate electricity. What is complicated is getting nuclear deals signed off and into operation.

South Africa has for some years now attempted to increase its existing nuclear capacity, with the latest proclamation taking us back to Groundhog Day.

In the last week of August, the country’s energy regulator, Nersa, concurred with a ministerial nuclear determination. However, it will be some time before a request for proposal (RFP) for new nuclear power in the country.

Our Groundhog Day started in early 2006 when the government announced that it was considering building an additional conventional nuclear plant. The sites selected for an Environmental Impact Assessment were Thyspunt (Eastern Cape), Bantamsklip (Western Cape), and Duynefontein (close to the existing Koeberg nuclear plant).

A year later, the Eskom board approved a plan to double the country’s generation capacity to 80GWe by 2025, including the construction of 20GWe of new nuclear power – the infamous Nuclear-1 project, which came to an abrupt end in 2010.

Between 2010 and 2014, nuclear was an unwelcomed topic at the table.

However, the 2014 State of the National Address (SONA) was the first address that explicitly mentioned the nuclear programme. President Jacob Zuma said: “We continue to explore other sources of energy, in line with the Integrated Resource Plan for Energy. […] We expect to conclude the procurement of nine thousand six hundred megawatts of nuclear energy.”

Furthermore, the President’s 2015 and 2016 SONA reaffirmed the 9.6GWe target, with the first unit expected to come online in 2023. But the tide receded again. In April 2017, a high court ruling set aside the intergovernmental nuclear cooperation agreements with Russia, the US and South Korea, along with approvals by Nersa of two ministerial determinations concerning the procurement of 9.6GWe of nuclear capacity.

Since then, the nuclear programme has had much to contend with–whispers of corruption and butting up against the renewable IPP programme. You can read more on this in the article by Dr Anthonie Cilliers, who gives a good account of the history of nuclear in South Africa.

Reviewing this passage gives the impression that we have been here before – on the brink of adding much-needed clean, reliable and cost-effective energy capacity.

In case you missed it:
Mantashe’s busy week shaking up the energy mix in SA (May 2020)

However, with each mention or government-led announcement of new nuclear power entering the market, there is an outcry against the proposed programme–citing concerns around nuclear waste, the considerable cost and potential for corruption. 

The difference this time around is the possibility of investing in small modular reactors (SMRs) instead of a large nuclear build. This technology opens the door for islanded, intelligent SMR microgrids of around 100MW located close to high demand areas.

Would you welcome a 24/7 power supply in the form of an SMR in your backyard? If not, what is the alternative?

Until next week.

Editor, ESI Africa 

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
Nicolette is the Editor of ESI Africa print journal, ESI-Africa.com and the annual African Power & Energy Elites. She is passionate about placing African countries on the international stage and is driven by the motto "The only way to predict the future is to create it". Join her in creating a sustainable future through articles and multimedia content.