Gloves come off as SA backs nuclear

Koeberg has remained one of the best-performing power stations in the world, says the author. File photo

Koeberg has remained one of the best-performing power stations in the world, says the author. File photo

Published Dec 17, 2023


Hügo Krüger

A few months ago, I collaborated with colleagues to scrutinise the data on nuclear power employed by the South African Presidential Climate Commission, a body that included a known 'anti-nuclear activist' on its panel, presenting a clear conflict of interest.

After significant efforts from grassroots movements within the nuclear industry, the narrative has finally shifted, with the country returning to its historical trajectory of developing nuclear power plants along the coastal cities. The eventual goal should not stop here. South Africa should rather proceed cautiously in the direction of replacing the entire coal fleet within the interior with nuclear power.

In response to popular pressure from numerous engineers and union members, the government is now contemplating the realization of a new 2000 MW pressure water reactor and 500 MW allocated to small modular reactors.

The cost of the former is now going to be determined as countries respond to the Request for Proposal (RFP), and the estimated cost for the latter, based on the price of the former Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, would, in my estimates, be around R20 billion — less than Eskom’s diesel budget in 2023.

While the project isn't poised to commence immediately due to lingering contractual details requiring clarification, it's time to pause and reflect after a year of ongoing debate. It appears that the voices of many engineers within the energy sector are finally gaining recognition, with the MBA 'Harvard boys' in renewable energy somewhat retreating and admitting that total decarbonisation without nuclear power in the 25th driest country in the world is going to be an expensive exercise.

The case for nuclear power in South Africa was well understood by the Apartheid System Planners, who incorporated it into the energy component of the total strategy—the policy a nation falls back on when its survival is under threat.

Ranked as the 25th driest country globally and lacking water power, South Africa essentially faces two choices for maintaining sufficient baseload capacity: coal and nuclear power.

Countries that have available water benefit from the geopolitics dictum that “geography is destiny” and are already equipped with a large battery, such as the Amazon in Brazil or Colorado River in the US, to balance intermittent sources. Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury.

In our case, handling the intermittency problem of renewables without widespread water availability makes moving towards 'flexible' options and a pricing mechanism in kilowatt-hours challenging.

As I argued in parliament during my opposition to the unbundling of Eskom, the move will dismantle the coal fleet, leaving us all economically poorer. South Africa should rather move to a fixed price service model for electricity; like what we achieved with the unbundling of the telecommunications industry, it will not pose a threat to either coal or nuclear power.

The recognition of the necessity for nuclear energy, in our environment, is so widely embraced by the broader public that opinion polls indicate it as one of the few issues on which Afrikaners and black communities, historical rivals, almost unanimously agree. This fact alone can result in a nuclear power build serving as the basis for reconciliation and nation-building.

Whenever I travel to the historical Afrikaans Universities, I am always struck by the number of black engineers and scientists who instinctively chose to study nuclear power.

In fact, South Africa’s nuclear industry is arguably, next to the Springboks, the best example of how skills transfer occurred in the decades after Apartheid without compromising competitiveness.

This is why Koeberg has remained one of the best-performing power stations in the world, and why South Africa continues to lead in the design of small modular reactors with our engineers employed in various startups across the world.

For South Africa to persist as an integral nation, it is crucial to envision a long-term coal-to-nuclear transition. This is particularly important to ensure that communities in the Mpumalanga coal regions do not face significant disruptions during the energy transition.

It is entirely feasible to prevent them from experiencing population stress and displacement by reconstructing nuclear power stations on the exact locations of the coal fleet.

While coal will continue to be the backbone of the South African industrial economy for decades to come, there is now a recognition within the corridors of power that harnessing the power of the atom offers a viable path for South Africa to maintain its industrial competitiveness through investment in nuclear as baseload capacity.

Could the announcement of the new nuclear developments mark the commencement of South Africa's equivalent to France’s Messmer Plan, envisioning the substitution of 'dirty' King Coal with Nuclear Power?

Only time will tell, but with up to 24 countries pledging to triple their installed nuclear capacity at the COP28 Conference, the renewable lobby can now be assured that the Nuclear Industry isn’t going to bend over and remain their convenient punching bag anymore.

In 2017, Dr Anthon Eberhard, a prominent advocate for renewable energy at the University of Cape Town, declared that "the gloves must come off" in the battle against nuclear power.

Well, Anton, they did come off “en as ons moer, moer ons hard terug”.

Hügo Krüger is a YouTube podcaster, writer and civil nuclear engineer who has worked on a variety of energy-related infrastructure projects, ranging from Nuclear Power, LNG and Renewable Technologies.