Why are Africans afraid of nuclear energy, asks Molefe

Johannesburg- Africa should use nuclear energy to move forward, said Eskom CEO Brian Molefe.

Speaking at the power utility's integrated results at Megawatt Park on Tuesday, Molefe shared some of the things he learnt from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) nuclear programme, which he recently completed in the US.

The programme took Molefe through the basics of chemistry, physics and mathematics to understand nuclear reactions and plant infrastructure.

What struck Molefe is that MIT has a nuclear reactor on its campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close to the public.

“My curiosity was aroused and I wanted to learn what your fears are about nuclear,” he said. He also met one of the managers of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. “I shook his hand and he is not radioactive,” he added.  

Compared to Eskom’s energy costs, nuclear energy is identified as an affordable option. Eskom's energy costs increased to R84.7bn, slightly above the R83.4bn from the previous year. About 78% of these costs are attributed to coal, 18% of costs are from independent power producers (IPP) and 4% came from international purchases or imports. IPPs only account for 4% of production.

"IPPs are the most expensive... the cheapest source is nuclear," he explained.

"No one is saying we shouldn’t use nuclear because it is expensive. The issue of affordability is a separate matter to technology development," said Molefe.

He listed the US, France and China as examples of countries which are benefiting from the use of nuclear energy. “Africa is the most behind in terms of electrification,” said Molefe.

To meet the United Nations COP21 climate change goals, South Africa needs to reduce carbon emissions in the supply process. As a result, Eskom will focus on shifting to renewable energy sources over the next two decades.  

Molefe's opinion on nuclear energy comes as the South African government stalls its process of releasing the request for proposals around the 9.6 GW nuclear new build programme.

Environmentalist groups have taken the Department of Energy to court over the new build process, claiming that it secretly struck a deal with Russian nuclear firm Rosatom in 2014.This is vehemently denied by government and Rosatom.

Economists fear a programme to build about eight nuclear reactors could put significant strain on the country's fiscus, which is already under tremendous pressure amid signs that its credit rating could be downgraded to junk status. 

President Jacob Zuma said this year that the nuclear programme will roll out at a pace and scale that South Africa can afford.

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