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Nuclear is declared green, but specialist skills are vanishing and costs are spiralling


Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

Finland’s long-delayed nuclear reactor connected to the power grid for the first time last weekend – 12 years after its planned launch and billions of euros over budget.

Roughly 15,000km from South Africa and almost exactly due north, this event is relevant and interesting to us for a number of reasons – not the least of which is that Finland was a recent destination for many of our best and brightest nuclear engineers.

Others have moved, or are moving, to the Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is 50% complete. It’s the first nuclear power station in the Arabian Peninsula, the second in the Gulf region, and the first commercial nuclear power station in the Arab World. It’s huge, with a capacity of 5,380MW, almost three times Koeberg, and will supply up to 25% of the UAE’s energy needs. But back to Finland.

The plant, Olkiluoto-3 is the country’s first new nuclear plant in more than four decades and Europe’s first in almost 15 years.

Given the delays and challenges facing our own Koeberg as it grapples with its complex life-extension project, it is worth noting that the Finnish project was plagued by technological problems and cost overruns.

The cost ballooned from an estimate of €3-billion to about €11-billion, according to the 2019 World Nuclear Industry Report.

The project was also beset by a string of technical and safety setbacks because of poor project management and workmanship. This sounds ominously similar to what is happening at Koeberg right now, although Eskom is putting on a brave face. Over time, Olkiluoto-3 is expected to reduce the need for electricity imports from Russia, Sweden and Norway, leading to lower prices.

It also significantly improves Finland’s electricity self-sufficiency and helps in achieving carbon neutrality goals. This is all good as the world scrambles to lessen its dependence on the oil and gas coming from the land of bloodthirsty dictators. Our energy minister has used the Russian crisis to call for a resumption of oil exploration off our shores. It’s a matter of time before he reintroduces the nuclear debate.

Some people have suggested that the Russian crisis, coupled with the drive to remove fossil fuels from the energy mix, will prompt a nuclear revival. In fact, the European Union has recently said that it plans to label nuclear energy green.

Although countries such as Germany are phasing out nuclear reactors, citing safety concerns, France, Britain and others are planning new projects. I just can’t see this revival happening and it’s an honest conversation we should be having in South Africa.

Many think the accidents, in 1979 at Three Mile Island in the US and in 1986 at Chernobyl in Ukraine, brought about the demise of the nuclear industry. It’s a logical conclusion – in the 15 years before the Chernobyl accident, about 20 new nuclear power reactors came online a year. Five years after the accident, the average dropped to four a year.

But there were other contributing factors. An article in Scientific American suggests that the growth of electric power consumption in developed countries slowed dramatically at the same time as the price of electricity stopped falling. This slowed the demand for new builds. Another, oft-cited reason is that the construction costs of new nuclear builds became astronomical.

This expense has been driven in part by more stringent safety standards, but also by the fact that, with fewer plants being built, there are fewer construction workers qualified to build them, resulting in costly construction delays for corrections of mistakes. I’d like to underline that point and print it in bold. I’m not flying a flag for any particular energy mix, but the lessons of Finland – a well-resourced country – are salutary.

As it is, Eskom’s financial woes mean it is unable to pay our nuclear experts – from technicians to engineers and scientists – a salary that is commensurate with their skills.

Even worse, some are on contract. This means that when Koeberg’s Unit 2 is restored to full operation, the 500-odd people working on it, who have learned valuable and steep lessons, will be laid off. This means all continuity is lost, and there are no guarantees that those people will return in October when Unit 1 comes down for maintenance.

The smaller local contractors that do work for Koeberg are also tight for cash, so, in Eskom parlance, “the system is constrained” and the problem snowballs. The days of the state managing or funding mega power projects are over. The solution to power generation lies in partnerships with the private sector, where the funding and skills management are not state-dependent. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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