The South African government, at a nuclear conference held in Midrand in March 2013, strongly affirmed its support of the country’s planned nuclear programme for a fleet of power stations to provide 9.6 GW as per the national integrated resource plan (IRP).

Yet, in spite of the South African government’s continued support for the nuclear power programme, there hovers a cloud of uncertainty.

South Africa made the decision to implement a nuclear power programme on 16 March 2011 whereby 9.6 GW of nuclear power is to be added to the national grid by 2030.This decision was taken five days after the Fukushima nuclear reactor incident in Japan and South Africa’s minister of energy Dipuo Peters hopes this emphasises that the political will is there to take forward South Africa’s planned nuclear energy programme. Eskom is to be the owner and operator of these power stations.

Peters sensibly states that any long term energy mix requires the country to use all its resources including nuclear energy. “The earthquake tsunami that struck Japan almost put a damper on the nuclear plan, but cabinet said the country has legislation in the sector and can deal with any challenges. Aproviso was that the department of energy should ensure there is a nuclear power implementation plan that will speak to all of the 19 milestones listed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”

In early February 2013, South Africa undertook an Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR), a peer reviewof its nuclear power capability, as per the guidelines of the IAEA. This review covers a range of issues ranging from political will to infrastructure. Peters says the agency has never before undertaken an INIR for a country with an existing nuclear programme as this was designed for newcomers to the sector.She says the fact that South Africa undertook the processs hould also be seen as a strong indicator of the political will to ensure its planned nuclear programme takes place.

After the Fukushima nuclear installation incident due to the worst tsunami on record, the result of the nuclear reactor failure being no deaths and no one affected by radiation, the South African government nonetheless opted for caution. Eskom and the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) were asked respectively to undertake a safety assessment of Koeberg nuclear power station and the test reactor at Pelindaba, and these came out positively. In addition a body called the National Nuclear Energy Executive Coordination Committee was formed.

Peters points out that nuclear energy produces base load power with a controllable and predictable output. Because South Africa is trying to reduce its dependence on coal fired power, nuclear is currently the only established base load option the country has. Gas may have potential for the future,but at the moment the choice comes down to nuclear energy or coal fired energy. Peters correctly notes that the country cannot depend only on wind and solar. “Our vision is to migrate to a low carbon economy by 2030 and therefore we have no choice but to include nuclear energy into the mix and we must explore the necessary models to achieve this.”

The country’s deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe says,“South Africa has had coal at the core of a mining driven economy, and coal generates over 90% of the country’s electricity. Coal is not a long term solution. Most of the coal used is clustered in the north-east part of South Africa, which requires long high voltage lines to transmit electricity across vast distances. This is strategically unwise over the long term.”

Motlanthe says, “We need to produce electricity in other parts of South Africa. This is a strategically sensible approach which requires the use of other energy sources in addition to coal. Nuclear power is ideal, since we can build large plants on the southern coastline and other points in the future.Nuclear power plant building is a major undertaking and South African industry can play a major role in the construction and fabrication of these.”

So, with such a clear cut policy statement, why does the uncertainty about South Africa’s nuclear programme linger?One reason is obviously the emotive and irrational opposition that exists globally towards nuclear power. Peters hints at the political challenge that presents and suggests, “Let South Africa have open engagement about nuclear power. Let the people of South Africa be informed and let them weigh the pros and cons.

We went to speak to the communities  in the areas where the power stations are to be and out of the process we have a public education centre created to demystify nuclear technology.” She says that lies about nuclear technology, are being told to the people of the Eastern Cape a region she envisages could become a national energy hub,with nuclear energy being part of that. Peters has appealed to the nuclear industry to host events and discussions in tha tregion to assist the department of energy in promoting the benefits of nuclear power.

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