Last week, South African Minister of Public Enterprises Malusi Gigaba declared that the country would continue to pursue plans to construct nuclear power stations in order to tackle the country’s energy deficit. In a statement to the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa, Gigaba said South Africa is “going firmly into nuclear generation … it is an important asset that should remain in the hands of the state”. While diversification away from coal-fuelled power will reduce carbon emissions in line with targets, significant doubts are being raised about the viability of Africa’s only nuclear programme in the face of growing safety and economic concerns.
This week's comments are the latest in a saga that has dominated South Africa’s new energy plans. In May 2011, South African Energy Minister Dipuo Peters reiterated the government’s desire to press on with plans to expand the country’s nuclear energy programme. Only two months earlier, the hotly debated Integrated Electricity Resource Plan (IRP) was approved by Cabinet, which included the proposal for 22% of all new energy to be delivered from nuclear power stations by 2030. However, similar plans were also drawn up three years ago, only to be scrapped due to financial concerns.
South Africa has a long and eventful history with nuclear exploration dating back to 1957 when the then government signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. As an important country for uranium extraction, South Africa was able to exploit its own natural resources to develop its nuclear enrichment programme. While Koeberg is the only operational nuclear power station on the continent, the South African government successfully developed its own nuclear weapons programme by the early 1980s. However, this was short-lived and, by 1991, President de Klerk had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), making South Africa the first country to voluntarily give up its nuclear arsenal.
As South Africa’s only functioning nuclear power station, Koeberg produced 12.7 TWh (5.3%) of South Africa’s electricity supply in 2008. During the same year, the combination of rapid economic growth and industrialisation meant that a new major electrification programme was required to meet the growing needs of the population. Demand had outstripped supply and a new initiative was required if the government was to achieve its target of universal access to electricity by 2012.
Thus, the government turned its attention to the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) that had been under development since 1993. Harnessing the latest in German nuclear technology, energy giants Eskom, along with American firm Westinghouse, embarked on a project that would see South Africa emerge at the forefront of the nuclear energy sector. However, having already invested approximately $1.3 billion and with a further $4.2 billion required for its completion, the government put the project on hold in 2008, announcing that in the current economic climate the project was simply too costly.
The question is how can the South African government now afford the option of nuclear power just three years after halting progress on the Pebble Bed Reactor? For many people the answer is simply that it cannot. The South African government has once again been enticed by the seemingly huge sums of money and the influence of foreign governments like the United States and France. On a visit to Paris just a few days before the new energy plans were released, President Jacob Zuma signed bilateral agreements with French energy company Areva. The deal will most likely see the French company provide expert technical assistance in return for concessions on natural resources, and represented a backwards step in the eyes of some observers.
While large energy contracts help to strengthen bilateral relations, the truth is that if South Africa contracts all 9,600 MW of its proposed nuclear power then the results could be catastrophic in economic terms. With escalating costs for maintenance and waste management, the R300 billion cost of the project outlined in the IRP is likely to escalate.
From a publicity perspective, the Integrated Electricity Resource Plan could not have been announced at a more damaging time. Only a few days earlier Japan's Fukushima nuclear power station was left on the brink of meltdown in the aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami resulting from the country's close proximity to a tectonic plate boundary. In South Africa, scientists suggested that the offshore Milnerton Fault, which lies only 8km away from the Koeberg nuclear station, has the ability to cause a nuclear disaster of devastating magnitude if a significant earthquake were to strike. The government attempted to allay fears by stating that the nuclear programme would provide jobs, reduce carbon emissions and make good use of the country’s abundant uranium supply. However, over four months on since the Japanese earthquake, the nuclear energy sector in South Africa is still trying to regain supporters for the new nuclear initiative.
Questions remain unanswered as to whether the South African government can afford to invest in a nuclear programme that will cost approximately one-third of its annual budget, or whether nuclear power is a safe option in the light of the recent disaster in Japan. These issues will undoubtedly continue to be raised in the run-up to construction.
With South Africa listed in 2009 as the world’s 13th largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, efforts to diversify away from coal power are commendable. However, the potential for renewable, environmentally friendly alternatives has been largely ignored. South Africa's location provides it with near-perfect conditions for wind, solar and wave power generation. Strong ocean currents and strong sea breezes along the east coast could easily be used to provide the country with the energy it so desperately needs. However, the government officials in charge of the energy sector seem fixated on the lure of nuclear development.
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