On Sunday 14 June, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe took to Twitter to issue his department’s call for a nuclear energy build programme. This followed earlier statements that he wished to test the market’s ability to deliver on small nuclear reactors.
Mantashe is trying for a type of nuclear reactor different to the one proposed in former president Jacob Zuma’s disastrous nuclear programme, which failed to pass a basic cost-benefit analysis. And, just as Zuma’s programme failed to make economic sense, so Mantashe’s dreams of a nuclear future seem destined to be dashed against the rocks of economic reality.
To understand why, it is worth highlighting that the sort of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) that Mantashe is trying to bring onto the market are simply not commercially viable. Even the world’s second-richest man, Bill Gates, has been throwing tons of money at the problem and coming up short.
Gates is the founder and chairperson of Terrapower, a fourth-generation nuclear power company started in 2006. According to their website, they are “committed to the near-term deployment of third wave reactor technology. We aim to achieve startup of a 600 megawatt-electric prototype in the mid-2020s, followed by global commercial deployment”.
While this might sound promising on paper, in reality it is highly unlikely that Gates can even deliver on it, especially given his poor track record in this field. After investing a considerable amount of time and money on research and development of a type of SMR called ‘travelling wave’, Terrapower gave up on the technology.
Terrapower is now experimenting with a molten chloride design. However, a number of experts have raised questions about TerraPower’s choice of nuclear technology. For example, the senior editor of MIT Technology Review, Richard Martin, points out that “many nuclear industry observers have been sceptical about the concept from the outset… and the track record of those reactors is not encouraging”.
Princeton nuclear physicist MV Ramana says the sort of fast reactors that Terrapower is trying to develop “in general have never been commercially viable, and I haven’t seen anything from TerraPower that suggests their design will fare any better”.
Another sceptical voice comes from Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, who points out that companies have already spent $100-billion worldwide trying to commercialize SMR reactors like Bill Gates’ without success. In the words of Makhijani, Gates’ $1,3-billion investment “is hopeless”.
Even if Gates or other SMR developers were on track to develop a prototype by the mid-2020s, that’s a far cry from making it commercially viable. As energy analyst Joe Romm highlights, “genuine technology breakthroughs are exceedingly rare in the energy arena, and generally take decades and vast resources to deploy once they do make it to market”.
The government’s own modelling showed that, but instead of embracing renewables, they artificially capped the number of new renewables we could add to the energy mix, to allow them to squeeze in dirty, expensive coal as well as nuclear and fossil gas options.
Let’s be generous though and assume that, against all odds, Gates or other developers do succeed in developing a prototype by the mid-2020s. The technology could yet be stillborn for cost and other economic reasons.
Consider a study commissioned by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as part of a technical economic assessment of nuclear small modular reactors. What the study found is that the first SMRs which might emerge in the 2020s are likely to cost about £100/MWh.
That costs more than traditional nuclear plants, which we have already established are too expensive and are being priced out of the market by cheap renewables, which now provides the cheapest energy around.
SMR costs could be reduced in time through learning and efficiencies of scale if there was a large scale roll – something which would have to be heavily subsidised given how expensive the technologies would be at first. However, even the DECC’s optimistic scenario suggests that after deploying 10GW, which is equivalent to a fifth of all South Africa’s energy supply, the price could reduce to £70/MWh – which is still damn expensive.
By the mid-2020s, the DECC expects offshore wind power to cost £40/MWh, less than half the price of the SMRs. Onshore solar and wind in South Africa are already far cheaper and their prices are expected to keep coming down at a rapid rate. As such, SMRs are unlikely to ever make much economic sense even if they were heavily subsidised during their initial rollout.
In the words of the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, “No commercial SMR has been built; the first is expected within 10 years. Future cost competitiveness is currently uncertain.” An uncertain and horribly expensive technology is hardly what you’d want to bet our energy future on.
Yet Mantashe wants to do just that.
The madness surrounding all this is that the modelling is very clear – renewable energy is South Africa’s best bet. The government’s own modelling showed that, but instead of embracing renewables, they artificially capped the number of new renewables we could add to the energy mix, to allow them to squeeze in dirty, expensive coal as well as nuclear and fossil gas options.
Research shows that compared to sticking to our polluting system, a transition to 100% renewable energy could create 200,000 more jobs by 2030 and a million more by 2050. It would also lower the cost of energy by 25%, save 196 billion litres of water per year, make our energy system more reliable, and get rid of our biggest source of air, water and climate pollution.
With a climate crisis, an Eskom crisis, and a load-shedding crisis, we should be working on a rapid transition to renewable energy and pushing for a Green New Eskom. Mantashe is trying everything he can to prevent that rollout, instead continuing to push uneconomic and polluting technologies.
Even if we take the environmental impact of nuclear waste out of the picture, nuclear simply is not a sound economic prospect. We need to stop wasting our time on nuclear build programmes and get down to the real work of building a future in renewable energies.
Right now, Mantashe’s nuclear fantasies are a dangerous distraction. DM/MC