The recent spate of anti-nuclear media coverage coincides with the National Energy Regulator of South Africa's (Nersa's) public consultation process on procuring 2,500MW of nuclear energy to rescue our dire energy situation over the long-term, while short- to medium-term measures are being considered and implemented.
It is logical to assume that the biggest economy in Africa should be powered by a balanced and sustainable energy portfolio that ultimately delivers:
- access by all to affordable electricity;
- environmental sustainability;
- sustainable employment and, most importantly
- energy security, which mitigates load shedding.
Nuclear energy is the only power generation technology we have available today, that delivers exceptionally well on all of the above objectives.
Therefore, it is illogical when knowledgeable and seasoned economists, energy experts, and now politicians, try to squash the value proposition that nuclear energy has for our country, in favour of imported and evidently unreliable energy sources.
As one of the pioneers of renewable energies and independent power producers in South Africa, I am disheartened to see that, after spending R250bn on renewables, our economy remains constrained by energy security challenges. Whereas the same investment in nuclear energy would have given us more than double the electricity produced on a reliable and dispatchable basis, and it is “green”.
Koeberg is a living example of this having generated the cleanest, most reliable and cheapest electricity for the past two decades and will continue doing this for at least another two decades. It is therefore foolish to even try and undermine the value this has provided and continues to provide for our economy, especially for the Western Cape.
To ensure that nuclear energy retains its status as the safest power generation source in the world, it has recently improved its safety and quality standards with the release of third-generation large scale nuclear power plants. The emergence of small modular reactors (SMRs) promises to improve on these safety standards and shorten the construction lead times.
The new generation power plants have emerged from their prototype projects, where construction lead times and costs were understandably overrun, similar to what we saw with the early wind farms. Today’s large-scale nuclear power plants are being consistently built by highly experienced and competent engineering, procurement & construction (EPC) teams within the budgeted schedule and cost parameters.
These are the proven power plants and construction methodologies that South Africa will pursue to reduce these known risks, while cutting out corruption and increasing local content. We are now well positioned to reap the benefits of many reference nuclear power plants built and operating successfully in the world.
Although the overall delivery of a nuclear power plant, from conception to commercial operation, is typically 10 years, a significant part of that is in the planning, procuring, licensing and site preparation during the initial stages, which provides many sustainable and high-paying jobs right from the start.
With the high levels of unemployment in our engineering, manufacturing, material supply and construction sectors, instead of criticising, we should be welcoming long-term construction projects that provide a century of employment from conceptualisation to decommissioning. Clearly the jobs created will be a significant benefit for our country in addition to the valuable energy it produces over the long term.
While renewable energy suppliers claim to provide the cheapest installed costs and tariffs for new power plants, this is taken out of context erroneously by not considering the additional system costs to balance the intermittency in supply. T
his places the overall renewable/IPP tariffs at about double Eskom’s selling tariff, which effectively puts our electricity costs into orbit as we expand the renewable portfolio. Batteries will exasperate these costs even further.
Although the installed costs of nuclear power plants are about three times higher than renewables and take longer to build and commission, they operate three to four times longer, produce three to four times the amount of electricity per year and provide even greater multiples of jobs per GW installed and TWh produced.
They are easy to finance with sub 5% export credit funding (ECF) from their countries of origin and again, will provide the cheapest electricity on the Grid after the capital costs have been paid back during the first quarter of its operating life.
The cost of decommissioning and spent fuel management is included in the tariff as a statutory requirement. However little is known about the piles of renewable toxic waste being generated, the ecological impact and the decommissioning of these plants and how this is being managed.
To add to the illogical stance from the anti-nuclear groups, modern nuclear power plants also provide flexible energy to follow fluctuations in load demand and balance the intermittency of renewables.
Nuclear energy also has the capacity to provide an abundance of cost-effective and clean energy for high volumes of reliable process heat, desalination and hydrogen production, while the world sleeps at night.
Of great importance for South Africa, is the investment and employment opportunities that a nuclear build programme brings to our energy sector. The industry-based South African Nuclear Build Platform (SANBP) is dedicated to optimising local industry participation in a nuclear build programme.
South Africa has a very capable and experienced nuclear industry, which is currently engaged in Koeberg’s life extension in preparation for the new build.
The nuclear industry is highly regulated and fact-based.
As Michael Shellenberger aptly said, “The real reason they hate nuclear is because it means we don’t need renewables”
There is, however, enough room for all energy sources in South Africa’s balanced and sustainable energy mix. Let us commit ourselves to solving our country’s current and future energy needs instead of pursuing vested interests.