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OUR BURNING PLANET: VIEWPOINT

South Africa’s new nuclear power plan is a high-regret option

Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre, west of Pretoria, South Africa, photographed on July 10, 2012. The centre was used by the apartheid government to research and build nuclear weapons in the 1970s. It is now used to manufacture medical isotopes. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Alon Skuy)

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2019 indicates that a nuclear build programme ‘is a no-regret option in the long term’. I disagree and consider that a nuclear new-build programme is exactly the opposite – and very high-risk.

The National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa), has issued a consultation paper and called for public input, comment and response to a determination by the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, in terms of Section 34(1) of the Electricity Regulation Act, 2006, to procure 2,500 MW of new nuclear power in South Africa.

The ministerial determination was sent to Nersa for its consideration and concurrence, which is a necessary step before the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) can issue a request for proposals to nuclear vendors following an open, transparent and competitive procurement process.

I am opposed to new nuclear power in South Africa, and this is definitely not because I am ideologically against nuclear energy or nuclear technology per se, but for sound, pragmatic reasons and the absence of a valid business case, including, amongst other factors: 

  • The high capital cost/interest during construction and owner’s development costs;
  • The long planning, authorisation, procurement and construction times of over a decade;VI
  • The inevitable high cost- and time-overruns associated with complex mega-projects;
  • The construction and operating inflexibility of nuclear power in a power system that increasingly needs flexible generation capacity; and
  • Most of all, the need to commit to a single vendor country, vendor company, technology and design for a period of 100 years – including construction, operation and decommissioning.

This ministerial determination comes at a time when the world of energy and electricity is undergoing rapid change when the prices of renewable and flexible generation technologies are plummeting when new energy storage technologies are emerging, when the future of large-scale, centralised generation is changing and when the demand for electricity over long-distance transmission grids is decidedly uncertain and declining.

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2019 indicates that a nuclear build programme “is a no-regret option in the long term”. I disagree and consider that a nuclear new-build programme is exactly the opposite – very high risk and high-regret option indeed. This is not the time to be making extremely expensive 100-year commitments.

So, I urge thinking people to oppose new nuclear power in South Africa – because this is clearly not a national priority, and a new nuclear procurement cannot prevent the current electricity crisis from becoming a catastrophe in the course of the next decade.   DM

Written comments on the ministerial determination for 2,500 MW of new nuclear power in South Africa should be sent by email to Nersa at [email protected]. The closing date is for written comments is Friday – 5 February 2021, but generally, Nersa does accept written comments after the closing date too. The dates for public hearings on the ministerial determination will be announced by Nersa shortly.

Chris Yelland, energy advisor to OUTA, and managing director at EE Business Intelligence.

 

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All Comments 13

  • Eskom has never (and people are welcome to go back to the 1940’s) built any station on-time on-budget. They are unlikely to start now. On top of that, nuclear is typically YEARS late and 100% over budget anywhere in the world. I prefer nuclear to coal but strongly suggest that Eskom sign a PPA with an IPP. Prediction engine : they do not find any takers from a nuclear vendor – at least not at a sane price per kWh.

  • I tend to agree with Chris. The capital investment of large conventional nuclear power plants similar to Koeberg is staggering and although the operating costs are lower than coal power stations it takes many years to break even.
    The one factor nobody talks about is the deteriorating level of safety culture in South Africa. The Eskom Nuclear cluster is becoming more and more ring-fenced and non-transparent with their operating and procurement processes, which is completely against the International Atomic Energy Association guidelines. This type of behaviour is what caused the Chernobyl accident to lead to so much death and destruction!
    South Africa should rather focus on renewable energy sources as we have wind and sunlight in abundance, while technological advances make it possible to store electrical energy for use at night or when the wind subsides.

  • I agree. A 100 year technology commitment in the face of rapid technological advancement doesn’t sound like a decision based on an NDP. This decision seems more logical as a fatcat plan from China

  • Destined to become a white elephant under construction – based on our current performance there is a very good chance that it doesn’t ever get finished and the cost to finish far exceeds any benefit gained in its lifetime. Even after construction, the daily operations and the handling and disposal of the fuel would eventually have to be entrusted to the same people who now struggle to keep the coal fires burning. Large scale private green cogeneration and storage would seem to be the rational direction to meet daily peaks while the outgoing coal-fired apparatus limps along at the nightime baseload.

  • NERSA deadline on Friday 5th February; that morning Eskom announces blackouts due to “wet coal”. Coincidence? The trend has been since Mbeki’s 2008 blackouts that “loadshedding” coincides with energy discourses and deadlines. Another anomaly unique to South Africa is that it only started raining on Eskom’s coal in 2017, when this excuse was trotted out and has since been used to justify blackouts consistently. We do get the message from Eskom; it’s: add more nuclear generation or else. Mr Yelland, your five reasons to eschew more nuclear energy are very sound and compelling. However, the main threat for South Africa from adding new nuclear generation is simply the inherent secrecy that surrounds nuclear projects. South Africa should have learned from the arms-deal and from Eskom’s Kusile and Medupi that mega-builds covered in nuclear secrecy is one dark tunnel we’ll never likely emerge from, and this is precisely the kind of project that would suit the RET bunch in further looting and pillaging of the country’s wealth. There are some very bad people with enormous power for whom the prospect of secret nuclear deals are just the ticket to cover up new depths of malfeasance. Battered and bruised tax-payers say NO!

  • Top add to the others comments. The renewable IPP’s raise their own finance, and the finance costs are generally low because risks are low and they start to get a positive cash flow fairly quickly. How will we finance a nuclear plant, and at what sort of finance terms, given the length of the project and inherent risks.

  • May I firstly offer you a non-damaged and realistic picture of what Pelindaba and Koeberg actually look like. (you see, I have been there. Where did you get this disgusting one from?)
    Where does one even start with a response? I will take but one Yelland “reason” at outset:-
    Number four:- “The construction and operating inflexibility of nuclear power in a power system that increasingly needs flexible generation capacity;” ………….. Pardon!!!!
    The major and massive problem in the world’s advanced admissions of renewables to large grids lies exactly in their inherent instability….their INstability…to be support powered by the grid when wind conditions are not within operational possibility. (too low or too high!)
    What one demands is a baseload, despatchable energy source supplying energy on-demand, such as nuclear or fossil to hold the frequency, maintain base stability of the grid supply and supply energy when required without hesitation or variability. This is essential to cover a while nature plays with wind and sun and provides on- demand on a stochastic, if you prefer 30% “Nameplate” ,statistical, basis. (Please, How many country’s must I quote?)
    Chris, I recommend, as a very start, that you go to the internet available U.K. data on all their input energy sources live and study the history thereof. They were extremely close to outages recently and have suffered outages earlier but certainly not due to inconsistency of their nuclear component but IPP’s failing. If allowed, I will return to this topic.

    • Don:

      Why do we keep on calling coal baseload? We have 40-odd GW yet any given time 10 is down for planned maintenance and 15 is down for breakdowns. I venture that there are windfarms with higher productive hours per year than eskom’s coal fleet.

      But sure, bring us a nuclear vendor that will sell energy instead of projects and we will all support it. Vendor must take all project risk. What would the price be if you could find a vendor with enough trust in their technology and ability to take on project risk? 200c/kWh? 250c/kWh.

      • Johan. For factual local reasons. Coal is our baseload providing, whether you like it or not, ENERGY, (GWH) (dispatchable). It supplies well over 80% of our total electrical energy with 24 hour “on-human demand” time:-(even in its current totally desperate state with 15% breakdowns as you say!!!!)It is not Nameplate POWER (GW) dispatchable for only 30% of the “naturally defined” random time.(thereby not showing how long it will last for different loads.) The world’s second biggest back-up battery power supply (Tesla, 100 MW) in South Australia can store enough energy for only 4 hours max. of energy demand of Adelaide itself. Why do they have bad outages? They have no baseload! Simple.
        Do not decry performance to anything other than ineptitude en masse in our past ESKOM maintenance and performance crews which has been growing since before 2000. ESCOM, (previous name) with its huge fleet of 6 world leading coal “six-pack” units totalling of 3.6 GW (six of 600 MW each) and providing 22GW of BASELOAD in the 1980’s alone was profitable nd recognised as one of the four biggest in the world and also as the cheapest. (We are still 3 times less expensive than Germany (running on renewables) demanding their back-up from Norway (hydro) France (nuclear) and Poland (coal) when they run short which is often. (They have over 70 GW of renewables installed and “operating”. Go look at the numbers yourself. (You need a dynamic reference to watch it happen?) Our mining industry and manufacturing was built on coal and which have zero chance of being replaced by renewables, especially so when demanding the expensive “back-up” which has to be “spinning reserve” to be considered to be of “baseload” capability.
        Our system is no longer functional albeit we have some “4o+ GW available”. Any such National facility should have at least 15% Reserve “standby” for incorporation when units are down,or being maintained, (which has not been done with e.g. annual tube servicing having been cancelled completely which is why boilers are “rusting” up now) and even coal supplying belts feeding power stations are falling down. 1n 1980 there were over 30 quality coal sorters (“Kangela” designed and supplied by Pelindaba) for defining calorific value dynamically that coal be at least 35 minimum to supply (much higher to feed industrial high quality needs, lower to waste while today they are being fed with supplies of rocks of far lower calorific value This is not being monitored as before, thereby lowering considerably the efficiency of each generator and thereby decreasing power available per unit. Your bet on windfarms is “pie in the sky” as when the wind blows (say even 50% (!)of the time) but when above a physical limit, (about > 80 km/h) the blades have to be feathered and the nacelle turned into the wind to prevent them from being blown over or spinning off axis, which TAKES energy from the grid as a safety demand, rather than supplying it. When no wind blows, they have to heat the bearings up north to stop them from freezing and when it snows you get the odd blade “thrown”.
        Johan, I have not even started but this is a toothfull to begin with for you and I look forward to your reponses further, if any, to answer in greater and greater depth what you need to know before pontificating. (I saw your first contribution but decided not to contest it as being trivial. Welcome to the scientific club.)

  • Well said Chris. The bottom line reality is that the ANC government will always shoot themselves in the foot given the chance and nuclear is just another opportunity. Everyone has known for years that we will have an energy shortage, and nuclear presents an opportunity for endless corruption. In contrast, in countries like Australia, with an equally unfavourable carbon footprint due to the exports of coal to India and China, they have shifted power generation progressively into the hands of the private sector with rooftop solar in both homes and businesses. Serious tax rebates have helped as well as encouraging feeding int0 he grid. Ah! the skeptical pundits all say, what about at night and peak periods. Well, now the incentives are also for batteries in the home, as well as large scale batteries power and they are solving those peak issues as well. So will SA ever move forward with progressive thinking? Probably not as CONTROL is paramount, to the detriment of the country and all the populus.

    • Bridget. I am thrilled to have you assure me that there is absolutely no corruption in the wind energy business. Glad that the clearly vested interests that one sees openly, is all actually playing by the book and saving the planet from destruction in 12 years time.(Courtesy of Greta! … but in even less time by the authority of the Prince of Wales.) This obviously and sadly hinders children from sleeping easily which is unfair alarmism.)

      You speak knowledgably about distributed Battery power back-up, being obviously aware of the fact that a 524 kg Tesla battery (that half ton is quite heavy for a house) has the same power as 30 kg of coal. (which, even at my advanced age, I can still just lift.) Makes one think … well …..in my case anyway. As to the Government, I guess I agree with you with them having perforated holy feet you describe but I would request you to refer to your Australian friends (or sources) to confirm your roof-top energy visionary provision proposition as presented. I was a Member of the South African World Energy Council representatives back in 1992 when we recommended buying (they were cheap and “unwanted” then following the Chernobyl human error catastrophe) for four new 890 MW “Framatome” reactors, identical to the two still in operation to make up the original “six pack” design and catered for in building up of ~ 6 GW block capacity, with no CO2 emissions to speak of, if that worries you, by 2002 and 2006. Sadly that project was stopped a few years later and the Koeberg pair remains as the dependable “cash cows” of the ESKOM Fleet awaiting refurbishment and extension for 20 more years of dependable operation.

      Indeed, energy dependency is critically important for a winning State, so please stay in the hunt for a true and safely secure solution from the horrendous state of maintenance decay and inept previous Management we suffer now but covering the previous ten to twenty catastrophic years including massive corruption in the case of Medupi that I am told.