South Africa's nuclear policy goes mainstream

13 June 2008

The government of South Africa has eased its way onto the global nuclear stage with cabinet approval of its nuclear policy. This paves the way to a focused nuclear energy future that seeks to increase nuclear reliance from 2 GWe to around 40 GWe by 2025. 


Almost one year after approval of the draft policy for public comment, the final document emerged from parliament in Cape Town this week. Nuclear custodian, the Ministry of Minerals and Energy, views this policy as reflecting government position on the extension of the existing nuclear energy program and not as a replacement or renewal of it.


The policy is an ambitious statement to take ownership of the full nuclear fuel cycle. This includes, in some cases, the inclusion of private sector investors together with government agents. The policy allows for flexibility for the country to gain more benefit from the uranium it mines from potential conversion and enrichment works. Ambitious in intent, the contents span the full nuclear fuel cycle including fabrication; used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste management, reprocessing and recycling devolving significant power to the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa).


Given South Africa's current energy crisis, the policy makes allowances for the need to drive the energy situation forward and recognises that the 1998 white paper on energy policy has been "overtaken by events". That nuclear is the only viable energy resource at present for base load electricity production has been acknowledged by the state especially, in the light of the fact that South Africa is also one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2) per capita in the world. The government continues to emphasise its commitment to public consultation as part of the environmental impact assessment and nuclear installation licensing process.




Aside from cosmetically, the policy differs from its predecessor draft in several areas. Greater emphasis is seen on the government's role in the full cycle for nuclear energy. This supports the publicly stated objective of building a uranium enrichment facility in the future and increasing human capacity.


For the uranium mining sector, the easing of government objectives from the draft to the final document should bring a sigh of relief. The latter has been amended to lift the control of uranium supplies, the uranium value-chain and unprocessed uranium ore for export purposes from the hands of government. It does however state that the government will play a role in restricting uranium exports to preserve a stockpile for the purposes of allowing for nuclear energy security of supply.


Investment has taken on new proportions with a dedicated clause to encourage private sector investment in "all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle". This would be propped up by government financial support. Public-private partnerships are emphasised as options in the roll out of nuclear power plants and associated activities. Electricity utility Eskom is to retain majority stakes in nuclear power generating entities.


In its role as the only country on the African continent to host a civilian nuclear reactor, the country has added to its final policy a commitment to the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty. Through the treaty, South Africa will establish the African Commission on Nuclear Energy as its compliance verification mechanism. The country, whether graciously or by agenda has included a commitment to actively seek to promote uranium beneficiation on a "regional basis". With neighbouring Namibia streaking ahead with uranium exploration and mining in the region, the combination of these forces could wrest away dominance from Niger as the leading uranium miner in Africa.


The policy sets out the establishment of a number of supporting institutions; "safety regulator" and "security regulator" have been meshed into one "integrated national nuclear regulator".  How this reflects on the present National Nuclear Regulator is unclear, but coordination of all activities will be directed by a National Executive which still has to be formed.


South Africa presently has a number of dedicated nuclear sites in reserve, while allowance is made for the further reservation of nuclear sites. Although the existing Koeberg nuclear power plant could accommodate several additional reactors, it remains essential for the country to establish a strategic reserve of nuclear sites and associated servitudes for transmission lines.

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