The status of South Africa's nuclear program

22 December 2016

South Africa's nuclear industry initially reacted with some concerns about the suggested delays to the country's nuclear new build program in draft updated energy plans released in late November, writes Knox Msebenzi.

Subsequent explanations by the Department of Energy clarified that the announced base case scenario is not the final proposal to be put into the national policy. An extensive consultation process will ensue and various players and interested parties will make submissions in accordance with the public participation process of government. The Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA) will utilize the public comments period on the Department of Energy's draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) and Integrated Energy Plan (IEP) to represent the views of the industry.

The draft electricity-focused IRP plans to add an additional 37,400 MWe from wind power, 17,600 MWe from solar plants, 35,292 MWe from gas and 15,000 MWe from coal by 2050, as opposed to official plan (which is still legally valid) which initially plans to generate 9600 MWe of energy from as many as eight nuclear reactors. This timeline aimed for the first plant to be operating in 2023, and the remainder to be completed by 2029.

The scenario in the draft IRP and IEP suggest South Africa's first new nuclear power would be expected to come online in 2037, adding a total capacity of 20,385 MW of nuclear energy to the national grid by 2050.

NIASA will submit that any delay to implement the new nuclear build could be devastating to the viability of the nuclear industry as a whole and curtail the founding principles to bring about economic development, localization and curb the negative environmental impact which coal power poses to our environment as confirmed by the World Energy Outlook 2016 report published by the International Energy Agency.

In addition, many of South Africa's coal power stations will be decommissioned in the future and therefore the country is in need of a clean and reliable source of baseload power to replace them, in line with the COP21 climate change commitments made by the South African government.

A myriad of factors form the objectives of the Integrated Energy Planning process: ensuring security of supply; minimizing the cost of energy; promoting the creation of jobs and localization; minimizing negative environmental impacts from the energy sector; promoting the conservation of water; and diversifying supply. It is the industry's view that the delayed scenario would also curtail these founding principles and particularly contribute to a decline in the industrialization process which is reliant on the need for a robust plan for a reliable and affordable energy source.

There is also a desperate need to assess the real impacts of localization emanating from the current renewable projects in South Africa. From NIASA's perspective the broad-based contribution to the South African economy and sustainable and empowering job creation from renewable projects will prove to be unmatched with those that would emanate from a nuclear program, which would address key objectives in the country's National Development Plan.

The reliance on gas power in the future could also be an error, as research on this power source currently is highly speculative. It could cost more than initially projected, as most of the gas would have to be imported and South Africa would be vulnerable to volatile prices exchange rates.

NIASA has reviewed the latest drafts of the IEP and IRP and found several serious shortcomings. Most importantly, we have found that externality costs were not taken into account for numerous technologies. We have previously communicated this to the Externalities sub-committee of the IEP Update process.

Several well-known academics and institutions have claimed that it will be more affordable for South Africa to replace the planned new nuclear capacity with a mixture of photovoltaic solar panels, wind turbines and gas turbines. However, our state utility Eskom has claimed that the wind and solar power that the Department of Energy obliges it to buy through its renewable energy independent power producer procurement program is largely unusable, as it arrives at the wrong time of day.

Externality costs are reasonably well allocated in the IEP, except for methane discharges of imported LNG. It is our view that externality costs are badly allocated in the IRP, which has skewed the process in favour of new coal and imported LNG to support the intermittency of renewables. NIASA has recommended a review of this oversight.

NIASA would further like to agree with and endorse the National Treasury's statement that the viability and affordability of nuclear should be investigated further with more detail, research and accuracy with a balanced panel of experts providing insights and views.

At NIASA we have long maintained the view that conversation and the narrative around the new nuclear build has been tainted with inaccuracies and fears that are based on hearsay and a blatant refusal by the anti-nuclear groups and researchers to have a balanced and representative view of South Africa's required energy mix.

We believe a comprehensive study into nuclear and a balanced representation of South Africa's required energy mix will in fact show that a nuclear program will have the largest multiplier effect when it comes to the contribution to the economy and is key to addressing our country's National Development Plan objectives.

Nuclear energy is the most viable option to meet the country's National Development Plan in terms of localization and stimulating economic development.

Knox Msebenzi

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Knox Msebenzi is managing director of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa.