Necsa seeks change in its mandate in order to tackle manufacturing of small modular reactors

A worker walks inside the Necsa plant at Pelindaba, near Pretoria. Picture: Liza van Deventer

A worker walks inside the Necsa plant at Pelindaba, near Pretoria. Picture: Liza van Deventer

Published Mar 7, 2024


The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) is gearing itself for a different role in the nuclear space, being directly involved with the manufacture of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other components as discussions with the government on the change of its mandate to operate nuclear power plants fell through.

Necsa chairperson Dave Nicholls confirmed yesterday that the state entity was keen to take on the role with a joint venture partner with the rollout of the devices by Eskom, or other capable entities.

“We have had discussions on the mandate and with the recognition that it would be difficult to change our mandate, we are comfortable seeing ourselves as the procurer. We are already involved with the research and development of nuclear technology,” Nicholls said.

Necsa had formally requested Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe to change its mandate and to allow it to become involved in the generation of electricity from nuclear energy

With its interest in innovative approaches and applications of nuclear energy such as SMRs and micro-reactors, Necsa had hoped to operate small reactors as part of the additional capacity sought while Eskom concentrated on conventional nuclear reactors that were already commercial.

Nicholls said Necsa would hope to start building on a small scale to gain traction with a joint venture partner, who had the design and the prototypes and then they are rolled up the value chain.

He said there were various steps to achieve this on the road ahead, which would need the support of the Department of Mineral Resources, National Treasury's agreement on the approach, the National Energy Regulator of South Africa to facilitate power purchase agreements as well as Eskom on the rollout in the country and possibly export market.

“It is a large and expensive project: well expensive by normal standards. This would allow for further developments on the country's renewable energy projects. It is not an impossible task. It is achievable,” Nicholls said.

This is as Mantashe on Tuesday confirmed South Africa's intention to not only increase its nuclear capacity by 2 500 MW, but look at options of enriching the considerable uranium deposits and also use in the medical sector.

Mantashe said at a global stage, small modular reactors were increasingly considered a game-changer due to their potential to guarantee reliable, clean, and affordable energy, which emboldened South Africa's  procurement of 2 500 MW of nuclear capacity.

Civil and nuclear engineer Hügo Krüger (correct) said the Necsa aspiration was feasible though it would take time and money as a lot of countries interested in SMRs were still at a research and development stage.

He said South Africa needed to navigate geopolitical elements and which countries to collaborate with, even in the procurement of the additional capacity. Russia and the US had the most capacity, but were at odd, placing South African in a difficult trade position.

“That leaves South Korea, China and France and they do not all have the necessary all round criteria of Intellectual Property (IP) built in domestic market for components, track record costs and an in-country licensing regulator amongst others.”

Africa4Nuclear Founder Princess Mthombeni said the gauntlet from Mantashe required South Africa to promptly release the Request For Proposals (RFP) for 2500 MW of nuclear capacity in line with the Integrated Resource Plan 2019, with the nuclear build program needing to commence swiftly.

She pointed out the imperative of finalising the Environmental Impact Assessment Authorization for the Thyspunt Nuclear Site in the Eastern Cape.

“Nuclear energy can help the country meet JET Implementation Plan objectives far quicker, with the bonus of stable low-cost clean electricity that South Africa’s Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant has been delivering for almost 40 years. I don’t see why JET implementers would be against that. Notably, the energy policy of South Africa is Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) while JET Implementation Plan is just that,” Mthombeni said.

She alluded to the country having history of operating the commercial enrichment plant, Z-Plan, which supplied 3.25%-enriched uranium for the Koeberg plant before its closure, which, resuscitated, would supply the increasing demand on the African continent.

South Africa already possesses the capability to mine and process uranium into yellowcake, as well as the technology for uranium conversion.

Advancing to the conversion stage would be relatively straightforward given the country's skilled workforce and existing equipment. However, fuel manufacturing would necessitate collaboration with technology owners.