The case for nuclear energy, part 3

Estimated read time 6 min read

This is an appendage to the two-part series on the importance of adding nuclear energy capacity to the grid. The first two, outlined the scope and scale of investments associated with nuclear power, alongside the benefits and challenges linked to the energy source. The emphasis of this instalment is on traditional and novel challenges to energy supply and demand. It also proceeds to review activities at the country’s sole nuclear energy plant (Koeberg), and evaluates government’s strategies towards growing the share of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix. 

Existing and emerging challenges

According to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 2022 publication, about 600 million people and 10 million small businesses, in Africa, have no access to reliable electricity. The report posits that, connection to the grid does not guarantee supply, as power cuts are prevalent. Blackouts have become more frequent with 80% of businesses experiencing power outages, which curtail business and overall economic performance. Exacerbating the poor electricity generation capacity, is the fact that demand for electricity increases twice as fast, in Africa, as the global average. This is due to tremendous rural-to-urban  migration, coupled with robust population growth. 

Climate change has impacted the performance of renewable sources such as hydro-electricity, resulting in reduced and erratic power generation from water resources.

Coal, though being an affordable power source, is a heavy pollutant. Resultantly, expanding the capacity of coal-fired power plants in a headlong fashion, can lead to diplomatic tiffs, negatively impacting the country’s foreign relations. Thus, there is a need to balance growth in fossil fuel electricity generation with cleaner and more sustainable methods such as nuclear. 

Solar and wind power, typically work out to be more expensive than nuclear energy, as the lifetime of solar components and wind turbines (20-30 years) is about half of that of a nuclear plant (60 years). Replacing the infrastructure adds to greater cost when compared to nuclear power. Apart from that, renewables are erratic sources of energy and require a coal or nuclear plant to be on standby, if there is to be a seamless supply of electricity to the national grid. The back up costs  (staff salaries, maintenance of equipment, etc) render renewables less effective. 

Thus, in order to go past the traditional and new challenges in power generation, nuclear energy will provide the best option for cost, diversity, sustainability and energy security. 

South Africa 

At the moment, South Africa is the only country on the continent with a functional nuclear power plant. The Koeberg station, in Cape Town, has a capacity of 1860 MW, and supplies 50% of the Western Cape province’s energy needs. The government owned power plant, has been a huge success, as no injuries or casualties of civilians have been reported since its commissioning, about 40 years ago (1984). It was built by the French corporation, Framatome, from 1978- 1984. Energy executives in the country, insist that the plant produces the cheapest, safest and most reliable energy in South Africa. 

As Koeberg’s operating license expires in July 2024, critical refurbishments and upgrades as required by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), must be exceptionally managed. This will enable the government proposed 20 year extension of the plant’s life cycle, to 2044. Delays and cost overruns during refurbishment, need to be avoided, as they may spill into public discontent and regulatory opposition for new nuclear projects, in the future. 

Government position on nuclear energy also needs to be clear, so as to remedy investor apathy and convey a consistent message. This had not been so, unfortunately. The Integrated Resource Plan, which is government’s strategy paper for long-term electricity infrastructure development, has largely failed to result in the execution of policy, besides being at odds with itself. At its launch in 2011, the IRP had envisaged the addition of 9600 MW of nuclear capacity to the grid by 2030. Evidently, there has not been any nuclear project for the past 12 years, leaving a 7 year deadline, to 2030. Instead, the updated  2019 IRP, went on to indicate that no nuclear capacity would be added to the grid before 2030. Such contradiction of government policy, on the same strategy paper, does no good for investors and the country at large. To make matters more complex, in May 2020, another conflicting government position was issued. At that time, it was announced that the procurement of 2500 MW of new nuclear capacity was being considered. The New Nuclear Build Program (NNBP), was reported to have a bias towards SMR reactors, to be operated by the private sector, according to Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) Minister, Gwede Mantashe. Thereafter, government utility company, Eskom, went on to apply for a Nuclear Installation Site License (NISL), citing Thyspunt as the location of its proposed plant, with public hearings held in Jeffery’s Bay and St. Francis Bay, in late 2021. The interesting part is that, Eskom is a public operator, instead of private, and the location of Thyspunt, which is by the coast, indicates that the corporation intends to build a large fleet nuclear reactor, instead of an SMR (which can function in arid areas). This adds credence to the call for government to be consistent in its messaging regarding new nuclear projects, in order to avert stifling investor will and momentum. As it stands, the government now aims to have the procurement process for the NNBP completed by 2024, giving chance to functional new plants before 2030. 

The moratorium on new nuclear projects would have negatively impacted the country’s energy diversity and exposed it to the risks of poor international relations as a result of the high dependency on coal. Granted, it is perhaps foolhardy to work on eliminating coal since it is abundant and compatible electricity generation infrastructure exists. However, for the optics and in preparation for an uncertain future, the best time to work on expanding nuclear capacity, is now. Currently, approximately 85% or 42 000 MW of installed electricity capacity, is powered by coal. The 2019 IRP aims to reduce that to 59% by 2030. It is advisable for intermittent renewables not to be the main substitute of reduced coal capacity. The time seems right for creating new nuclear capacity, instead.

Tutani is a political economy analyst

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