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South Africa’s Nuclear Energy See-Saw

6406.koebergWords to live by:

Not only would a nuclear expansion create mining and construction jobs, it would also open opportunities in the scientific sphere. "We have sufficient local capacity in terms of scientists and scientific companies and we can capitalize from our own intellectual capacity instead of sourcing from abroad," she pointed out.

She is South African Energy Minister Dipuo Peters. The main thrust of the story is that she wants to reassure coal miners that their jobs will not disappear and, anyway, there are plenty of uranium mining jobs. But along the way, you get some interesting nuggets:

South Africa plans to generate 9.6 GW of electricity from nuclear energy by 2030. The integrated resources plan also calls for 6.3 GW of new baseload coal capacity.

Really? Good for nuclear, but that’s a lot of new coal. When you look at the integrated resource plan and the studies that informed it, you find out why. 


In the study that provides the engine underneath the plan, coal retains favor because – as in the United States – South Africa has a lot of it. Likewise, the country has a lot of uranium. So energy security and diversity are granted high positions among competing priorities and that benefits coal and nuclear. In fact, I noticed that that several pieces refer to the “beneficiation” of local natural resources.

Natural gas gets short shrift for the same reason -there is not a lot of it in South Africa.

The current euphoria (primarily on an environmental basis) regarding a potential shift to natural gas as a significant contributor to energy supply needs to be placed in the context of available local and regional gas reserves. The potential contribution that natural gas can make to the overall primary energy supply portfolio is currently limited as the energy content of natural gas reserves/resources is significantly lower than those of coal, even on an optimistic assessment of gas reserves.

There are other issues with natural gas brought up by the study, but they all root in its lack of abundance. In the integrated resource plan itself, natural gas virtually disappears from consideration.

Renewable energy sources get a somewhat cursory glance in the study, but another white paper done at the same time covered them in more detail.  Here is what South Africa wants to do with wind, solar, etc. per its Department of Energy:

The White Paper's target of 10,000GWh renewable energy contribution to final energy consumption by 2013 was confirmed to be economically viable with subsidies and carbon financing.

Here is what the SA DOE believes will be outcomes:

  • Add about 1.667MW new renewable energy capacity, with a net impact on GDP as high as R1.071-billion a year;
  • Create additional government revenue of R299-million;
  • Stimulate additional income that will flow to low-income households by as much as R128-million, creating just over 20 000 new jobs; and
  • contribute to water savings of 16.5-million kiloliters, which translates into a R26.6-million saving.

Nuclear energy gets a somewhat cooler hearing at the Department of Energy – but let’s wait on that one. That’s a whole other story.

And there are other signs of coolness, too. For example:

Speaking during a recent nuclear energy round table in Johannesburg [in 2010], Dr. Rob Adam said that, while modest, the fleet envisaged in the draft second integrated resource plan, or IRP2010, was sufficient in scale to facilitate the economic production of nuclear fuel assemblies in South Africa.

However, in recent years, the country, which is keen to increase the beneficiation of its natural resources, including uranium, has signaled its intention to possibly re-enter the nuclear-fuel cycle for “peaceful purposes”.

And this is the CEO of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (or NECSA). It’s like watching a see-saw in action. (Adam is speaking before the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, so that is not contributing to his views.) Still, he does think that South Africa should reactivate its enrichment facilities.


World Nuclear Association takes a crack at summarizing where South Africa wants to go:

After public consultation the IRP was revised early in 2011 and passed by cabinet in March. According to this scenario, South Africa’s generation mix by 2030 should include: 48% coal; 13.4% nuclear; 6.5% hydro, 14.5% other renewables; and 11% peaking open cycle gas turbine.

That, in sum, is a lot of coal, though also a lot more nuclear than today – when there is only one plant in South Africa - and less coal by percentage, even if it still seems high at the end point of a plan that purports to consider climate change.

You can see the Integrated resource plan itself here.


One more thing to throw into the mix. The company Eskom supplies about 95 percent of South Africa’s electricity and 45 percent of the continent’s electricity, so it has more on its plate than one country’s energy plan. In 2007, Eskom announced a fairly ambitious nuclear agenda (this is also from the WNA):

[T]he Eskom board approved a plan to double generating capacity to 80 GWe by 2025, including construction of 20 GWe of new nuclear capacity so that nuclear contribution to power would rise from 5% to more than 25% and coal's contribution would fall from 87% to below 70%. 

That would be good. But:

[I]n December 2008, Eskom announced that it would not proceed with either of the bids [for new plants] from Areva and Westinghouse, due to lack of finance, and the government confirmed a delay of several years.

The economic downturn hit Eskom, too.

Here is how that reality meshes with the integrated plan:

Although the draft plan includes six new 1600 MWe reactors coming online in 18-month intervals from 2023, Eskom has said that it would be looking for lower-cost options than the earlier AP1000 or EPR proposals, and would consider Generation II designs from China (perhaps CPR-1000) or South Korea (perhaps OPR).

AREVA’s back in the mix, too, all to the good. (The story is not clear where the plants might be sited – all in South Africa is logical but not necessarily correct.)

So – after this – a conclusion? If I were a nuclear advocate in South Africa, I’d probably seem bipolar, as the country jumps from “Nuclear Is Required” to “Nuclear Is Nothing” to back again with startling rapidity.

Right now, it’s a needed thing, but even so, Energy Minister Peters can be surprisingly cagey about it:

Peters also did not acknowledge how many plants the country intends to build or the potential locations of the future plants, denying that one will be built at Thyspunt, a rocky stretch of coast in the Eastern Cape.

So you can rule out Thyspunt.

Really, it’s always been the case that nuclear energy has been seen as required if South Africa has any hope to chop away at its carbon emissions and still provide plentiful baseload energy. Interestingly, the integrated plan talks about wind power as a way to spell nuclear energy while plants are being built, a configuration I’ve never seen before. In any event, what Eskom will do with nuclear energy is still developing and will certainly have an impact on the integrated plan.

But – at least at present – I don’t think those coal miners have anything to worry about.

South Africa’s one operating nuclear facility, Koeberg.


Ian Perrin said…
Thanks for that, Mark.

I'm still ambivalent on nuclear power. Germany's shelving their existing plants, the rest of the world are not committing to it and life-cycle costs seem high.

But we need low carbon emission base-load electricity generation and, although there may be possibilities in the future for grid-scale storage of power from renewables, that's not an option upon which we can rely. At least, not for the moment.

According to IRP2010, the long lead times for nuclear require SA to commit immediately to the first 2 (of 5) units. Has that been done? Or is there new reluctance because of Fukushima?

Ian Perrin
Dr David Toke said…
I cannot understand how South Africa can consider nuclear power given the costs and difficulties involved. It is all very well saying producing figures to say that it is cheap when the consumer cannot avoid paying the electricity price. But evidence in the UK and the USA suggests that nuclear power is more expensive than renewable energy when it is costed competitively on the basis of companies being given what they need to be paid to do the projects without any blank cheques being handed to them by monopoly electricity companies. - Dr David Toke, Senior lecturer in Energy Policy, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom

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