South Africa’s ambitious nuclear aspirations

The continent of Africa, hamstrung by a lack of infrastructure and a negligible nuclear industry to speak of, counts only country with an active nuclear power plant: South Africa. The plant is owned by local energy company Eskom and is situated near Koeberg on a desolate stretch of coastline 30 km north of Cape Town.

A general view of Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo credit: AFP
A general view of Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo credit: AFP

The plant is powered by two pressurized water reactors with a combined capacity of 1830 MW, capable of producing 13.668 GWh, equivalent to around 5% of national electricity needs. The nuclear plant was designed and built between 1976 and 1985 by the French company Framatome, which is now owned outright by Areva NP. This old generation plant is now ill-equipped to meet the country’s growing energy needs.

For this reason, at the beginning of 2006 the South African government began to evaluate the construction of a second plant in order to increase the availability of electricity in the region. The following year Eskom announced the construction of a 20GW plant that would increase the contribution of nuclear energy from the current 5% to 25% of the energy mix.  At the end of 2008, however, Eskom was forced to postpone the project due to financial problems.

Nevertheless, in March 2011 the Energy Department in Pretoria published the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP, 2010-2030), which envisages the use of nuclear energy for the diversification of energy production. To be precise, the IRP proposed an energy mix based on a contribution of 13.4 % from atomic energy. This ambitious target involves the construction, by the year 2030, of six new active nuclear power plants that would generate 9600MW of new atomic energy.

Though nuclear energy will only be included in the energy mix from 2023 its development is already a priority: in the second half of 2014 the South African government signed a series of agreements with Russia and China to launch projects that will lead to the construction of new nuclear plants.

The first of these pacts was signed with the Russian nuclear company Rosatom, in September last year at the 58th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) in Vienna. The agreement established the construction of a large nuclear plant corresponding to the latest high standards in terms of technology and safety, the training of specialists at Russian universities for running the new energy infrastructure and the development of cooperation in other areas of the nuclear industry.

On 7 November in Beijing South African signed a nuclear cooperation agreement for the construction of new nuclear plants. The agreement is a precursor to the creation of a new atomic plant by the energy company China Nuclear Power Technology, through project financing by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Standard Bank group, while two Chinese universities have pledged their support to train the South African technicians.

Pretoria plans to sign further agreements with France, Canada, Brazil and Japan to construct more plants. Two such deals could be concluded after the workshop set to be held in Pretoria next week involving Canada and Japan for the development of nuclear energy projects.

Nonetheless, a number of analysts have expressed strong doubts about South Africa’s determination to resolve the country’s energy security problems through the use of nuclear energy. The main arguments against the plans of the Energy Department concern questions of finance; the possibility of delays and setbacks in the creation of the projects, problems that have been encountered in developed countries with tried and tested management capabilities, such as France. Such delays would increase the production costs of the plants exponentially.

Added to this are the risks of South Africa and Eskom’s credit ratings being downgraded, risks outlined in a recent report on the state of the global nuclear industry. In spite of all of this it is becoming increasingly clear that the production of nuclear energy in the country is set to increase.

According to Tom Harris, analyst from Frost &Sullivan for the sector of Energy and the Environment, if the government has really decided that nuclear is the best alternative to meet the demands of South Africa’s electric energy needs, it should adopt a candid and straightforward communication strategy to attract investment but also to reassure the local population and all the stakeholders of the coherence of the energy policy that is being pursued.

Such an approach must also investigate the other lesser-known factors that could have a negative impact on the South African civil nuclear energy programme: these range from the standards of the controls of uranium mines to the management of radioactive waste in addition to corruption, which could further increase the enormous costs of constructing the plants.


Translated by Nicholas Neiger

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