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The strangely enduring popularity of nuclear power — while Russia tells client states to ‘build now, pay later’


Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

The nuclear sector has shown itself to be incredibly resilient and adaptable in a time of significant changes in power generation. We are actually seeing a resurgence in nuclear new-build projects even as some celebrate its death knell.

Why has nuclear remained so popular in many countries? Why isn’t it dying? These are questions that some environmental activists have begun asking with more urgency.

Recently, there was a feeling among environmental campaigners that the days of nuclear were numbered; that we were in a major phase-out scenario. Victory was declared, and many had already moved on to new battles.  

However, the nuclear sector has shown itself to be incredibly resilient and adaptable in a time of significant changes in power generation. In fact, we are seeing what some may call a healthy resurgence in nuclear new-build projects even as some ring its death knell. Russia’s Rosatom alone is sitting on a quarter of a trillion dollars’ worth of orders and memoranda of understanding (MOUs).  

What is driving this renewed interest in nuclear new-build projects and who is funding it?

The first answer is that within the clean energy transition, some sectors are positioning themselves as intermediate solutions. The argument goes that if we shut down all coal mines, for example, that would lead to economic disaster.

Sustained electricity production is needed to keep powering manufacturing capacity, the services sector and normal daily activities. For this reason, we need to have more or less the same amount of electricity from other trusted, less polluting sources as we scale back dirty fuels. This is the logic, for example, behind South Africa’s interest in liquefied natural gas (LNG) and nuclear when Eskom has announced that it intends to retire at least 45% of its coal capacity over the next couple of decades — within the #Netzero2050 push.

The biggest players in what we can call the “intermediate clean” space seem to be LNG and nuclear. According to the European Nuclear Society “1kg of natural uranium — following fission for power generation in light water reactors — corresponds to nearly 10,000kg of mineral oil or 14,000kg of coal and enables the generation of 45,000kWh of electricity”.

In other words, a uranium pellet a few inches long can produce about as much electricity as a ton of coal. LNG similarly makes the argument that it can help countries achieve their nationally determined contribution objectives without compromising on energy security.  

The second reason for the continued growth in nuclear is that there is genuine fear in some quarters of being overtaken by some countries economically. South Africa, for example, has seen its GDP growth stall over the past couple of years due in part to its inability to provide quality uninterrupted power to its industries, businesses and homes. Now, as countries such as Egypt secure long-term nuclear electricity, South Africa’s political leaders fear that the country could fall further behind if it does not go big on power generation.

With the changes to Schedule 2 of the Electricity Regulation Act 4 of 2006 and the planned “decoupling” of Eskom into production, transmission and distribution units, there is a sense that the state needs to do more to continue providing affordable electricity to a majority of South Africans, especially in rural municipalities that may not be so attractive to the private sector.

A third reason is that the old energy sectors are simply more resourced and more organised than the budding clean-energy interests. South Africa has more than a century’s worth of coal, nuclear and diesel institutional memory. They have powerful lobbies behind them and they have the ear of people who matter. They also can afford expensive PR firms to argue their case in the public space, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that billion-dollar energy streams like LNG and nuclear are using another one of their nine lives.

Finally, and maybe more importantly, there is Russia. Russia has been quietly using nuclear diplomacy to boost its exports. It loaned Belarus $10-billion to build the Astravets nuclear power plant which went operational on 10 June this year. Belarus used the money to purchase Rosatom VVER-1200 reactors and secure uranium deals as well as human resources.

Russia also has a deal with Egypt to build a nuclear power plant in El-Dabaa. The plant is expected to be completed within the next 12 years although construction work has been paused due to political tensions between Egypt and Russia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Rosatom has more than $140-billion worth of confirmed orders plus a lot more in MOUs. Companies like the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant (NCCP) are also benefiting from the exports boom. Fuelling Rosatom’s success is the development of smaller, more efficient, quicker-to-install 300MW small modular reactors (SMRs).

In Africa for example, Rosatom has signed an MOU with Rwanda and countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan have shown strong interest in the multinational’s technology. Elsewhere, there are countries such as South Korea, Turkey and the Czech Republic.

Within the energy space, Russia is also fighting hard to secure the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline contract that will confirm another natural gas export line into the European Union.

Despite the boom in nuclear projects, it is important to remember the dangers that come with nuclear. A nuclear reactor consumes between 1,514 and 2,725 litres of water per megawatt-hour, according to energy researcher Kate Green.

Then there is the risk of a meltdown as we saw in Chernobyl or Three Mile Island in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (US) in 1979. South Africa has a very good record with the Koeberg plant, but what if something were to go wrong?

In terms of affordability, a typical nuclear plant costs a minimum of R160-billion and takes at least 12 years to complete. Faced with these choices, does it not make more sense to invest in solar and wind which take much less time to complete, for the same MW hours? Russia is answering this question by telling countries to “take the technology now — pay later”. Still, those are hefty loan agreements to commit to. 

We have to keep all these things in mind as we navigate these questions. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Michael Settas says:

    Solar and wind cannot provide base load power – that is undisputable – and national power grids must produce sufficient base load power, otherwise you are in serious trouble. The only viable alternative to coal for base load power is nuclear. And we really do need to get away from this unsubstantiated fear of nuclear. The technology has improved in orders of magnitude over the past few decades and it is incredibly safe and well tested. Even when assessing it on cost, nuclear comes out on top – it does have high initial costs but in the long term much lower maintenance and running costs and high levels of reliability. France produces the biggest proportion of power from nuclear in Europe and has the lowest cost of electricity. Denmark and Germany have the highest product from wind/solar and the most expensive electricity in Europe.

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