File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko

Johannesburg - Eskom on Sunday defended its, and government's, controversial ambitions for nuclear power generation.

“Recent global developments show that the world is increasingly moving towards nuclear power and that South Africa is on the correct path with its nuclear aspirations,” the parastatal said in a statement.

Current projections indicated that nuclear would provide over 1000GW of power by 2050 from its current level of 396GW.

This would be generated not only by existing users of nuclear power plants but increasingly by new entrants finding the relatively cheaper financial and environmental cost of nuclear power attractive. In order to generate this 1000GW, there was an expected increase in the number and size of nuclear power plants from the current 450 commercial nuclear reactors operating in 30 countries.

There were 65 nuclear power plants currently under construction. The aspiration was to increase nuclear energy contribution in the energy mix from the current 11 percent to 25 percent of global power, Eskom said.

Construction was also taking place in the United Arab Emirates and Belarus and they were constructing their first nuclear power plants.

It was fundamental to note that at least 15 countries that did not have any nuclear power plant activities were starting to pursue nuclear power strategies including Poland, Turkey, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Malaysia, Jordan, Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Namibia, Zambia, Saudi Arabia, Cambodia, and Libya.

“On the home front, nuclear energy currently accounts for over four percent of the South Africa's power supply. To this extent, South Africa has committed to building new nuclear power plants in its bid to increasingly diversify its energy mix to lower carbon emissions as required under COP21 energy targets, and in order to generate cheaper electricity and thereby further stimulate economic growth.

“As such, South Africa targets generation of 9.6GW of nuclear power by 2030 which will be rolled out in chunks that can be sustainably afforded. In order to fulfil this 9.6GW ambition, government has appointed the department of energy as the procuring agent and Eskom as the owner-operator of new nuclear power plants.”

In the interim, Eskom recently launched a programme to train 100 artisans, technicians, and engineers as nuclear operators in preparation for the future build.

On average, it took six years to train a nuclear reactor operator.

Eskom was also committed to enrolling three to five nuclear engineering PhD candidates every year.

This demonstrated Eskom's determination to ensure that the relevant world-class capabilities were developed internally and to deepen knowledge in this key subject matter, it said.

“Of utmost importance is nuclear safety. Koeberg's hardware has been upgraded to have a level of safety equal to the current safety standard for new power plants. The latter is an ever-improving standard, so further safety improvements are being implemented and planned on a continuous basis.

“Therefore despite the debate on the suitability of nuclear in South Africa's energy mix, Eskom has taken up the challenge and is proactively gearing itself up to own and operate an expanded nuclear fleet. This will reduce the cost of electricity for everyday consumers and minimise our carbon footprint.

“Eskom's nuclear track record speaks for itself and the increased continuous nuclear development of leadership creates a sense of comfort, not complacency, that our government was correct in appointing Eskom as the owner-operator of the new proposed nuclear plant,” Eskom said.

The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), which was dedicated to improving nuclear safety standards, had committed to support Eskom and the country in expanding nuclear power.

According to WANO, the model for having Eskom as the owner-operator was preferred. Not only did this give WANO an experienced nuclear utility to interface with but this also placed nuclear accountability firmly in the hands of a stable state-owned company.

In their opinion this was a better approach, than the concept of a foreign or privately owned nuclear fleet.

In this approach, the accountability for nuclear safety was clear and more readily understood by all parties, including WANO.

Koeberg Nuclear Power Station was also the only nuclear training facility recognised by WANO outside of Europe and the US. This international recognition further validated the rightful trust that South Africa had placed in Eskom.

“Eskom has therefore demonstrated its competence and has proven to be the most appropriate owner-operator to run South Africa's nuclear fleet,” Eskom said.