Electricity pylons carry power from Cape Town's Koeberg nuclear power plant. South Africa will need 20 gigawatts (GW) of new power generation capacity by 2020 and would require double that amount a decade later to meet rising demand. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA ENERGY BUSINESS)

The Government is forging ahead with its nuclear build programme to boost the electricity supply although details of its costings are scant, but Eskom’s own figures indicate it will be the most expensive option.

In the wake of an announcement on Thursday by Energy Minister Ben Martins that a detailed costing and the extent of the nuclear programme would be made known before the end of the financial year, a range of organisations have come out against the government’s stance in favour of extending South Africa’s nuclear power footprint beyond Koeberg.

It is envisaged that 9 600 megawatts of power must come from nuclear sources in the years to 2029 in terms of the Energy Department’s integrated resource plan (IRP).

Earthlife Africa project co-ordinator Tristen Taylor said the idea under the IRP, which dates back to 2010, was to have six nuclear reactors producing 1 600MW each. He estimated that each plant would cost about R180 billion, taking the total bill to a conservative estimate of R1.07 trillion “if we assume Eskom project manages the nuclear programme better than [the coal-fired and much delayed] Medupi”.

While Eskom has not provided recent build programme cost estimates, it did provide comparative figures in its third multiyear price determination application to Nersa of gas, coal, wind, solar and concentrated solar power (CSP). Nuclear ended up being the most expensive by far.

It was estimated by Eskom that the dollar per kilowatt capital costs were $6 131 for nuclear (this has since risen to more than $7 000), $2 940 for coal, $1 029 for gas (open cycle turbine plant using liquid fuel), $684 for gas (closed cycle gas turbine using gas), $3 258 for wind, $2 750 for solar photovoltaic and $5 802 for CSP.

Martins did not answer questions why the government was hell bent on the nuclear option, but DA energy spokesman Lance Greyling said the “government loves big projects” and believed it needed to build “big base-load power stations”.

The government’s main argument was that nuclear power emits less carbon than coal and once the nuclear reactors – which were prohibitively expensive – were established it was more competitively priced to fuel than coal and gas.

Eskom’s estimates to Nersa were that nuclear fuel costs were about R60 per megawatt hour, compared with R200 for coal and a whopping R2 772 for open-cycle gas and R685 for closed cycle gas.

Treasure the Karoo Action Group chief executive Jonathan Deal, who has led a strident campaign against fracking for shale gas in the Karoo, said: “The sudden pursuit of nuclear energy by the South African government not only draws a remarkable parallel with its ill-considered direction on shale gas in the Karoo, but it also flies in the face of an internationally depleting appetite for nuclear energy.”

He believed global investors were being sold a false picture of the returns on nuclear energy projects. He cited warnings by Greenpeace International senior energy investment advisor Gyorgy Dallos of crucial vulnerabilities in reactor design, major frauds, cover-ups, governance issues, collusion and loose regulatory supervision as being hidden from investors.

Deal said he was non-plussed why South Africa appeared to operate “in a policy vacuum that ignores the solutions lying in front of us”. He cited examples of power being used to pump water to homes “to keep large lawns green”, which could be stopped. In addition, street lights should be retrofitted with solar lamps manufactured in South Africa.

This would give time to develop a “much stronger” renewable energy component.

“Some may view this as a cavalier attitude, but have we done those sums before rushing off to spend more money?”

He suggested that South Africa could also follow international trends and deregulate the sale of energy across the national grid “so that a factory in KwaZulu-Natal can buy from a wind producer in Gauteng or a solar feed-in from the Karoo whatever rate they agree between each other”.

Significantly, the Energy Department has been driving through the Independent System and Market Operator (Ismo) Bill, which will allow an independent operator to manage the energy grid and procure power from Eskom and private power producers, but Martins and energy director-general Nelisiwe Magubane could not say why it was blocked in the national assembly.

Magubane said: “The Ismo Bill is in Parliament… the parliamentarians are going to be processing that. It is no longer with the space of the department… [it is] up to parliamentarians to decide on how to take it forward.”

However, the bill has been processed already by the energy portfolio committee and was to have been passed by the national assembly in June. Mysteriously it is headed back to the committee for further deliberations.

Deal also noted that about R9bn had been spent on the failed pebble bed modular reactor project. “Imagine if that money had been invested in solar 10 years ago,” he exclaimed.

Greyling said he could not understand why the government was fixated with nuclear energy. Even Eskom’s own figures showed that gas made sense. The large pools of gas off Mozambique and Tanzania were a good place to start.

He suggested that South Africa looked into the feasibility of building liquefied natural gas terminals that could receive natural gas from these sources and use that gas to run turbines at the coast “where we need electricity”.

AHI chief executive Christo van der Rheede said the building of additional power plants, whether coal or nuclear, should be subjected to an extensive impact assessment process.

The intended nuclear plan would be “very costly” and if anything went wrong it would have a devastating impact on people and the environment, he noted. Additional “mega coal power plants” – a reference to the building of the so-called Coal 3 – would have serious implications on water resources, the environment and food security.

“Much more emphasis must be placed on solar powered plants and community based projects using wind, water and other forms of green energy,” he believed.