Going nuclear is the way forward

15 October 2014

Minister Faith MuthambiEveryone would agree that a steady supply of energy is one of the inputs we need to achieve higher growth, drive job creation, reduce poverty and meet our social challenges.

Our energy reserve margins have become increasingly tight as a result of strong new demand by industrial and residential users that accompanied our economic expansion over 20 Years of Freedom.

Millions of previously marginalised South Africans are now on the grid as a result of our successful electrification programme. However, this was achieved by tapping into electricity reserves which had not been designed to cater for mass energy distribution.

It is predicted that our energy consumption will increase to 454 Terawatt hours (TWh) by 2030 from 260 TWh in 2010. The peak demand for electricity will also increase from 39 Gigawatts (GW) in 2010 to 68 GW in 2030.

Government has prioritised energy security as an apex priority and investments in this sector will be used to transform our economy. Moreover, we will be doing so in an environmentally responsible manner given our commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

“This situation calls for a radical transformation of the energy sector, to develop a sustainable energy mix that comprises coal, solar, wind, hydro, gas and nuclear energy,” said President Jacob Zuma earlier this year.

South Africa’s energy mix is detailed in its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2010) which provides for 6,3 Gigawatts of coal power, 11,4 Gigawatts renewable energy, 9,6 Gigawatts of nuclear power and 11,0 Gigawatts from other generation sources.

Our energy mix allows for a balance between energy sources, ensures a reliable source of power to meet the country’s growing needs and allows us to reach our carbon reduction targets.  

In an ideal situation we would have preferred renewable energy such as biomass, wind power, solar power and hydro-power as a baseload source; however it is unable to generate the large quantities of energy required to run the national grid.

Therefore, nuclear is certainly a feature in our energy mix given its ability to generate large amounts of electricity around the clock, affordably and reliably.

A single uranium fuel pellet - the size of a pencil eraser - contains the same amount of energy as 481 cubic meters of natural gas, 807 kilograms of coal or 564 litres of oil.

With energy demand increasing in every part of the world, nuclear energy is seen as essential to a country’s energy security. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear provided 12.3 per cent of the world's electricity production in 2012.

Already 30 countries operate 435 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 72 new nuclear plants are currently under construction in 15 countries.

Moreover, nuclear energy is regarded as clean energy; it does not contribute to climate change and will positively impact on our emissions reduction targets as part of our global commitment.

It is a long-term replacement for our coal-fired power stations. There is also an abundant supply of uranium which can fuel nuclear reactors for more than 100 years.

South Africa will introduce the 9.6 Gigawatts of nuclear energy in addition to that already generated by the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station.

We have begun the preparatory work that opens the way for the procurement of nuclear technology and are in exploratory talks with the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and France.

We have already signed Inter-governmental Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Cooperation in Nuclear Energy and Industry with South Korea and Russia. A similar agreement with France will be signed this month.

These agreements do not commit us to any one country’s nuclear technology, but sets out a framework on how these countries could assist our nuclear build programme.

This programme will ensure our future prosperity by making us energy self-sufficient, creating jobs and further industrialising our economy.

We will develop a nuclear value chain which encompasses the full spectrum from enrichment; the mining of uranium and the disposal of nuclear waste. Furthermore, it will revitalise the local nuclear industry to become an exporter of nuclear services and components.

There will be a strong emphasis on the local procurement of goods, services, and expertise required for the construction of our nuclear power stations.

While nuclear power plants are expensive and require a long lead time to be fully operational, they are generally cheaper to run than other types of power plants.

Government is mindful that future generations are not burdened by the cost and will ensure that the process in done in a fair and cost effective manner. It is however too early to place an exact figure on our nuclear build programme as it will depend on the type of nuclear technology and model chosen.

On the ground the Department of Energy is working to fast track financing, skills development, fuel cycle and uranium beneficiation in line with our nuclear roadmap.

However, we are by no means starting from a zero base. Government will build on the nuclear energy expertise and skills that already exist within the country. South Africa has substantial experience given that our first commercial nuclear reactor began operating in 1984.

Our current nuclear programme also includes Pelindaba, our nuclear research centre run by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation. It is one of the world’s biggest producers of medical radio isotopes from low enriched uranium.

The country’s energy plans will not only keep the lights on in our homes but has the potential to revolutionise our economy. It will help move South Africa forward towards positive economic growth, job creation and a better life.

Faith Muthambi is Minister of Communications