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Nuclear power an inevitable part of South Africa’s energy future?

23 April 2012 – When the South African government approved the widely discussed Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2010) in 2011, it was clear that a substantial part of future power generation will come from nuclear power.

According to this plan, 42% of all the new electricity generating capacity in the country will come from renewable sources (including wind, solar, hydro) over the next 20 years. Twenty three percent of electricity will be generated by nuclear power stations – this means that at least six nuclear power stations that are able to generate a total of 9.6 GW of power will be built by 2030.

In a recent article in the weekly South African newspaper Mail & Guardian, Energy Minister, Dipuo Peters, said that a  “reliable supply of affordable energy is a prerequisite for growth and development – especially for emerging economies such as South Africa’s.” She emphasised the need for nuclear power which she says is a “suitable base load source”.

However, renewable and nuclear power will not wholly replace coal as a source of power generation. In fact, the World Bank in 2010 approved a US$3.75 billion loan to build a new coal plant in Lephalale in Limpopo province. While there are many who decry this investment in “dirty” power, the World Bank has made provisions for renewable energy. In 2010 Barbara Hogan, the then minister of energy said the loan would also provide for a US$260 million investment in renewable energy (100 MW wind and 100 MW concentrated solar power projects) and US$485 million for investment in low-carbon energy efficiency components comprising road-to-rail coal transportation and power plant efficiency improvements.

In South Africa, like elsewhere in the world, many citizens fear nuclear energy and as justification will cite the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the more recent Japanese crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant. However, South Africa is the only country in Africa with a nuclear power plant (Koeberg on the west coast) and is regarded as the leader in nuclear energy on the continent. Many consumers are also not aware that most of the power in the greater Cape Town metropolitan area comes from Koeberg.

“The reality is that the number of nuclear disasters is far less than those that occur at coal mines,” says Philip Lloyd, research professor at the Energy Institute of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. “On average 5,000 people die annually because of accidents in the coal mining industry. In contrast, according to the World Health Organisation, in sixty years of nuclear power use globally, we have had 58 immediate deaths attributed directly to the Chernobyl disaster and 250 lives that were shortened because of the event. At Fukishima there were no deaths, but some people were exposed to radiation and their lives may be slightly shortened.  You will have to look quite hard at the nuclear power sector to find fatalities that match those in the coal industry.”

Lloyd points out that the new nuclear plants will be built at the coast where seawater is used to cool it down. “Engineers have had to reverse the flow of the upper Vaal River to keep the coal fired power stations like Duvha and Matla in Mpumalanga cool,” he says. “This kind of engineering is not needed at the nuclear plants.”

Lloyd will be one of the speakers at the African Utility Week exhibition and conference, to be held at the Nasrec Expo centre in Johannesburg in May. The conference consists of eight topic specific tracks, and Lloyd will speak in the Generation track, which will examine, among other things, the future of generation in a carbon conscious world. This is the largest gathering of its kind in Africa and brings together some 5,000 political and business leaders in the energy and utility services industry as well as end-consumers to meet and discuss utility challenges and solutions in on the continent.

Some experts argue that renewable energy sources should rather be investigated. But, says Lloyd these resources are simply not yet viable as an option to fully substitute coal or nuclear.  “To produce 9.6 GW with wind you would require about 22,500 two-meagawatt turbines at a 20% load factor. The technical data behind the Integrated Resource Plan2010 gave a cost of R14,500/kW installed, so 45,000 MW would cost R650 billion.”

The estimated cost of building six nuclear stations are set between R322 and R712 billion according to a report in the weekly Mail & Guardian. The newspaper approached a number of experts to do a cost analysis. Lloyd calculated accost of between R322 and R380 billion. Stephen Thomas a professor at the University of Greenwich’s business school came up with a sum of R636 billion while Rod Gurzynski, an energy and economics researcher came in with a cost of R599 to R712 billion.

Lloyd continues:  “We cannot afford more rolling blackouts like those we experienced at the beginning of 2008. Many industries had to close down because of the power shortages and thousands of workers lost their jobs. In fact, South Africa still does not have enough capacity for all its needs. Although power supply has stabilised, companies are still closing down because of insufficient capacity. There is an undeniable link between wealth creation and the supply of power.  It is clear that the planned coal and nuclear power plants are part of the solution to South Africa’s energy crisis.”

“Nuclear power has always been a contentious issue with those who are supporters and those that aren’t.  I am of the ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket – spread your risk’ opinion,” Claire Volkwyn, director of African Utility Week says. “We are certainly not suggesting we have these discussions at the conference purely because they are contentious, but because the South African Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) allows for a percentage of our electricity to be generated from nuclear power. We need to talk about how this is going to work in real terms, what the implications may be around the design and security of future nuclear power station designs, and what we do with the spent nuclear fuel after the fact.”