Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 1 May 2017

Time for sanity and clarity on SA’s nuclear energy plans

Despite the pro-nuclear lobbyists’ attempts to downplay the impact of last week’s Western Cape High Court “nuclear” judgment, the ruling was a telling blow to Government’s nuclear ambitions.

Of course the Western Cape High Court “nuclear” judgment last week wasnt the death knell that has been spoken of; however, the judgment has certainly applied the brakes and may have pushed the nuclear decision beyond the Zuma era, in which case the judgment could very well have been the fatal blow for a new nuclear energy build programme in South Africa.

Dr Kelvin Kemm, the Chairperson of Necsa (the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation) recently commented that “The anti-nuke lobby has had the platform to themselves not least because the nuclear industry has been quiet. This will change. Necsa and the nuclear industry intend to step up efforts to put the facts before the court of public opinion and to present a balanced and evidenced based case for nuclear energy as the right energy option for South Africa.”

I’m afraid Dr Kemm is wrong. No one has any platform to themselves. The court of public opinion is open to all, with the only proviso that it needs to be accessed with transparency and rational input. Furthermore, the pro-nuclear lobbyists have provided ample comment and input on the nuclear issue to society. Credibility however is key and the minute this crucial element is compromised, any cause will struggle to sway public opinion.

What I find amazing, however, is the pro-nuclear lobbyists’ belief that they and they alone are the experts and that civil society must simply trust their views on what is best for our countrys energy needs. Government has become its own worst enemy on the nuclear issue, believing they have the right to make these costly capital decisions without the necessary public engagement or for legally required parliamentary processes to take place.

Government furthermore gives the impression that they don’t have to answer or offer explanation about the expose related to secret supplier agreements with Rosatom (yes this did happen), or the need for haste with the nuclear decision, or the use of an outdated 2010 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), or the exorbitant costs of the scheme and how this will be financed.

For months the pro-nuclear clan have complained that the R1-trillion price tag of a 9.6 GW nuclear programme is incorrect, but they overlook the need to provide the public with a credible response as to what the expected price tag should be.

And for as many months, the pro-nuclear campaigners appear intent on challenging the publics intellect by quoting nuclear energy from the 33-year-old Koeberg nuclear plant as being the lowest priced electricity in South Africa (between 21c and 43c/ kWh), as if to imply that this is what we can expect from future nuclear-build programmes.

Input from credible researchers purport the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE – i.e. over the lifetime of the plant) from a new nuclear-build programme to cost South Africans between R1.30 and R1.50 per kWh, and this is before adding in any tax effects, decommissioning, long-term waste disposal and plant life extension costs into account. This is well above the figure of R0.97c/kWh used in the 2016 update of the IRP, sourced from a secret DOE research document. The waters are muddy indeed.

Eskom has told the public that they will manage the massive nuclear-build programme in a responsible manner, devoid of significant cost overruns, corruption and scope creep. Yet the court of public opinion is unconvinced, following years of lack in transparency and many incidents of questionable leadership conduct, combined with Eskom’s inability to curtail gross runaway costs on projects at Medupi, Kusile and Ingula.

While the authorities continue to make new energy build project decisions based on an outdated Integrated Energy Plan (IEP), the public will remain sceptical. While the DOE chooses to ignore the recommendations of the Minister of Energy’s own experts around least-cost energy choices in the IRP, business will not invest. And for as long as government shuns its critics and keeps civil societys experts at bay from scrutinising their assumptions and costs which inform the forthcoming IRP process, mistrust will remain high.

Then there is the question of the actual need for new energy build programme decisions in the next five to 10 years, taking into account that:

  • South Africa’s current electricity generation capacity is roughly 45GW.
  • Coal = 38.5 GW; nuclear (Koeberg) = 1.94GW; hydro = 1.5 GW (including 0.8GW Cabora import) and RE = 3.1 GW. This excludes reserve capacity of peaking gas and hydro at 5.3 GW.
  • By 2022, current new build generation projects will take this to 55GW. Medupi (3.2 GW); Kusile (4.0 GW); Additional RE (3 GW).
  • Yet today’s electricity requirements only average around 26.6 GW.
    • With demand ranging between 22 and 32 GW.
    • Demand has reduced over the past five years with little increase expected in the next few years.
    • Even if one anticipated a healthy economic growth for SA at an unlikely high rate of 2.5% per annum for the next 10 years, experts do not predict additional electricity demand to exceed 6 to 7 GW, for the next decade.
  • Set aside 15% of total capacity for maintenance, and introduce decommissioning of a few older coal fired plans and our capacity still exceeds demand a decade from now.
  • Clearly, we don’t need to make a decision on new energy build projects for at least the next five years, leaving us ample time to assess options and build for possible higher demand by around 2030.
  • There is simply no need to rush the nuclear decision in the manner currently being undertaken.

Add to the above the fact that many countries are decommissioning current or cancelling future nuclear build programmes, while the rate of introduction of renewable energy continues to soar. With less that 5% of our electricity coming from RE and many countries around the world at 30% and climbing, the people of South Africa need an extremely rational explanation behind our governments hasty appetite for nuclear energy, which appears to shun conventional wisdom.

If there was ever an issue that was shrouded in public uncertainty and confusion in recent times, it is governments nuclear energy build plan. And the reasons thereof lie squarely at the feet of government and their State-Owned Entities.

Our message to government and their pro-nuclear lobbyists is to stop trying to feed us with propaganda. Let’s get together and hear each other. What this country urgently needs is an energy charter, one that will provide the necessary clarity of our energy needs and solutions thereto. However, in order to ensure credibility, the Energy Charter process would need to be well informed, inclusive and absolutely transparent. DM

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