Just before Christmas, South Africa’s nuclear procurement programme was approved by Cabinet, allowing the Department of Energy to start calling for proposals to provide 9600 MW of nuclear energy by 2030, equating to 12.7% of the country’s energy generation.
The aims for nuclear power provision in South Africa are lofty, with as many as eight reactors planned to begin operating from 2023, at a reported cost of as much as $100 billion. The numbers have attracted widespread criticism, with many energy analysts and political opposition parties questioning whether South Africa can afford to embark on such a large and costly project.
Energy expert Chris Yelland stresses that, although a call for proposals has started, this doesn’t necessarily mean that South Africa will definitely invest such a huge amount of money in nuclear power.
“The fact that Cabinet has opened a procurement programme doesn’t mean we are on the verge of a nuclear build. In fact, there is no certainty that it will even proceed. There still has to be a shortlist drawn up on the proposals, the projects still have to go out to tender and final prices still need to be established, there’s a long road ahead,” says Yelland.
South Africa’s government embarked on a similar procurement programme in 2008. Two vendors were shortlisted and submitted bids, but the project was then scrapped when government realised it was unaffordable.
“There is no guarantee that the same thing won’t happen this time too. There are still possible financial issues that could put this to an end,” Yelland warns.
Soon after last year’s announcement, finance minister Pravin Gordhan said that South Africa will not pursue a nuclear power programme if it cannot afford it.
“We will act in a fiscally responsible way and only spend money we have, and if we get more money,” Gordhan said in a media briefing.
Yelland welcomed the prudency of the minister, saying that if South Africa was to proceed with its nuclear programme, it needed to do so with caution.
“We shouldn’t be committing ourselves to six or eight reactors, we need to act prudently and proceed with smaller commitments, perhaps building one reactor at a time,” Yelland said.
In the meantime, government has committed R200 million towards conducting analysis on the feasibility of the programme.
South Africa’s only nuclear power station, Koeberg in the Western Cape, has operated efficiently, safely and cost-effectively since it was built in 1984. The 1800MW plant contributes around 6% of the country’s energy per year, whilst its radiation and carbon dioxide emissions have been minimal.
Yelland said that it would be a shame to waste the experience gained from running a nuclear power plant effectively.
“Koeberg is proof that South Africa can operate a nuclear power plant. There is definitely a future for nuclear power here so it would be sad for us to waste this good experience. Hopefully we can build on it,” he says.
There are however more possible disadvantages to consider. Question marks have been raised about the affordability of running nuclear power stations, with various studies published last year by South African universities and research agencies finding that nuclear energy is more expensive than other baseload options. But Yelland argues that nuclear energy could prove far cheaper than coal, if strategically approached.
“If nuclear plants are built in coastal areas, which they most likely will be, then they will be very affordable. South Africa’s coast has no coal-producing areas, so nuclear will be a very attractive proposition, especially when you consider that seawater can be used for cooling purposes. On the other hand, it would probably be very expensive to build a plant inland at a place with scarce water resources,” Yelland points out.
Another issue is flexibility, with nuclear plants requiring long-term investment. They take a long time to build, have a high capital cost and require a commitment of many decades.
“It’s risky to invest a high upfront capital cost immediately, as you are committing yourself for the next 75 – 100 years. No one knows how our energy requirements may evolve during that time. Again, this is where the value of building smaller units with quicker lead times comes in,” Yelland says.
South African media have reported that nuclear procurement proposals are coming in from Russia, China and Korea, but the Department of Energy are tight-lipped. African Review gave the department three weeks to respond to questions, but received no responses by the time of going to print.
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