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Conrad Kassier
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Behind South Africa's nuclear ambitions

05 August 2013, 07:15

In recent months economists, academics and international observers have rejuvenated the debate around South Africa pursuing nuclear power expansion. The government seems serious to follow its nuclear ambitions and to achieve the goal of adding 9.6 GW’s of electricity through nuclear energy to the grid by 2030. The Integrated Resource Plan 2010 (IRP 2010) which is currently being disputed stipulates the country’s nuclear energy needs. President Zuma’s new role as chair of the National Nuclear Energy Executive Coordination Committee (NNEECC) confirms the appetite that South Africa has for nuclear power. The fact that the contract is estimated to be worth R1 trillion demands a closer look at what this all means.

Three reasons behind nuclear power expansion during Zuma’s first term in office prove useful.  

Firstly, South Africa’s electricity sector remains in dire need of reforms and a more coherent energy mix. The IRP states that 23% of the country’s future energy mix should stem from nuclear energy. The coal-fired Medupi and Kusile power stations entrench South Africa’s historical coal reliance and internationally discredit the efforts to curb carbon emissions and to meet the Copenhagen emission reduction targets. Minister Gigaba’s comments are correct when he states that South Africa now needs to think “post Kusile in 2017”. This is where nuclear energy enters the equation.

Proponents of nuclear power and the very few correctly informed citizens welcome the notion of nuclear power in South Africa for the sake of energy security. Nasa research recently showed that between 1971 and 2009 an average of 1.8 million net deaths worldwide were avoided, thanks to the existence of nuclear facilities. Mortality figures based on the use of fossil fuel facilities are undeniably worse and besides being detrimental to human health, cause unprecedented damage to an already fragile environment that underpins human existence. The naysayers continue to cite the disasters of Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 and will persist with this for decades to come.             

Secondly, South Africa is undergoing a global political facelift. Since Zuma has taken office, South Africa is eagerly presenting an image of multilateral partnership and confidently asserts its image on the global stage, especially in the field of energy. Africa is rising and South Africa is driving its development forward. Zuma correctly understands that South Africa’s development agenda will never be realized without the cornerstone of energy security being firmly in place. With Zuma occupying Africa’s driver’s seat also comes the need to act. To play on the global stage, South Africa needs to prove its ability to keep up with global developments, which is why we also see South Africa being ambitious in matters of energy. Former Minister Peters’ noted recently that South Africa is reaching a point of no return with the nuclear energy agenda, which makes sense considering the above in a broader context.  

Noting South Africa’s increasingly important role in the BRICS grouping and as a gateway to Africa, the ANC is eager to compare its nuclear power capabilities vis-à-vis its fellow BRIC partners. Let’s consider some available facts:

Brazil currently has two PWR nuclear reactors, a third reactor under construction and additional units planned for the 2020’s.  Russia currently operates 33 nuclear reactors, continues to add to and diversify its fleet, and is selling its nuclear technologies to other governments. Putin and Zuma’s blossoming personal friendship will surely underpin Pretoria’s nuclear energy decisions in the coming months. India is operating 20 nuclear reactors and is becoming a leader in nuclear fuel technology with the potential to evolve the best practice of nuclear fuel cycles in the near future. China has 17 nuclear reactors in operation, with 28 under construction and more units planned. South Africa only operates Koeberg’s two reactors and has seen its Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project being scrapped.

Thirdly, South Africa is facing a gradual population growth increase which means that more people require access to electricity. The trend of a growing population is not going to abate, meaning that energy security and sufficient power supply are not negotiable under any conditions. Since 2001, the population has grown from approximately 44 million people to an estimated 53 million people in 2013. Without electricity, daily life grinds to a halt as we know.

Reliable energy sources are the foundation to sustained economic growth and providing the government with the means to reduce poverty and social inequality. Nuclear power on its own is a worthy, climate-friendly means of reducing South Africa’s supply and demand gap, even if current data show that demand has not risen as sharply as was expected. Electricity demand will continue to grow as infrastructure developments progress and as South Africa upgrades its manufacturing and services sector to attract foreign investment. Stable electricity supply underwrites the path that has to be taken to ensure that the gateway to Africa remains open.

To proceed with the nuclear procurement, South Africa must deal with three practical challenges which by all means leaves government’s work clearly cut out for them. Firstly, the PBMR project cost South Africa R9 billion since 1999 and was discarded after an investment meltdown, leaving skeptics and nuclear antagonists in jovial spirits. This also reduced confidence in South Africa’s ability to expand its nuclear facilities.

Secondly, the price tag of building six new nuclear reactors exceeds Eskom’s financial means entirely, considering the continued cost overruns of Medupi and Kusile. Currently, South Africa is already lagging behind in its nuclear procurement plans, based on the time required to construct the nuclear fleet. This means that the well-known nuclear power plant cost overruns are lurking in the dark already and are likely to increase as the construction process continues.

Thirdly, over the years the awarding of tenders by the government has consistently been met with criticism and has left dents in the image and confidence outsiders have about transparency.  To curb this, government is challenged to find alternative funding models that will aspire to the stark realities that face the development of the energy sector. However, light exists at the end of the tunnel because Russia is lobbying very strongly for the nuclear contract. An intra-BRICS cooperation effort is something that South Africa should aim towards.

Nuclear procurement is thus not a matter of “will”, but “when” will South Africa commence. The political and economic opportunities that exist are far too shiny to ignore.

Conrad Kassier is a Master’s student on the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies programme at the University of Vienna, and is currently based at the BRICS Policy Center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

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