Koeberg nuclear power station provides the Western Cape with half its electricity; the rest comes from distant coalfields. Photo: Supplied

South Africa is viewed as one of the world leaders in the advancing international nuclear power renaissance, and one of the few countries in which the government has stated that our nuclear power expansion programme is going ahead, with determination.

South Africa has unequivocally stated that nuclear power is necessary and desirable. Indicating the importance that the government attaches to the programme is the fact that President Jacob Zuma has recently taken personal control over the chairmanship of the National Nuclear Energy Executive Coordination Committee.

Some years ago the government declared that its intention was to double its electricity generating capacity by 2035. This is a correct decision and the country will probably need more than double its current capacity before then.

As a comparison, South Korea has about the same size population but uses twice the electricity, and the country is geographically smaller. We also have to metaphorically “look outside the box” and note that southern African neighbouring states need to double their electricity consumption as soon as possible, then immediately double it again, and again.

Many African states are only 5 percent to 10 percent electrified, so they have to increase consumption dramatically to achieve a vision of a modern lifestyle in a technological world. The anticipated expansion will have an impact on South Africa.

South Africa will continue to rely on coal as its primary source of electricity for years to come, but virtually all the coal is in the north-east, and it is strategically unwise to keep building power stations in one part of the country and move power over massive distances. Half the electrical power to the Western Cape comes from Koeberg nuclear power station, but the rest comes from the coalfields over a distance that is the equivalent of Rome to London.

The only way to ensure reliable and available power, which is affordable, is to build more nuclear power stations along the Cape coastline. This is a big money target. We are talking of many billions.

It is also the case that nuclear power technology decisions taken now will have far-reaching consequences well into the future.

One would not want to change fundamental nuclear reactor technology after building the first new nuclear power station. So the outlook now is that of developing a “fleet” mentality. We need to choose a technology combination that will apply to the next six to 12 nuclear reactors that are going to be built.

Yes, the money involved is significant, but financial planning must contain the fleet mentality. It is not correct to talk of the cost of one nuclear power station, one needs to view the cost of starting a chain of events leading to a chain of power stations, and related distribution costs. Media outlets constantly refer to a nuclear cost figure of “up to a billion rand” for one plant. This is fiction and was generated by anti-nuclear groups in an attempt to discredit nuclear power. The cost should be stated as the cost to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity, not as the capital cost of one plant.

In this vein, so-called renewable electricity sources such as wind and solar are hugely expensive. They are also intermittent and unreliable, and wind turbines have a lifespan of some 20 years compared with 60-plus years for nuclear reactors.

In Germany, over the past decade, wind power has produced only half the initially projected output, while electricity prices have soared as a result of the government’s unrealistic renewable energy policies. They are now paying for their idealistic decisions. Wind and solar are ideal for isolated, independent generating points currently situated uneconomically far from the national grid. For base-load grid power they are not a reasonable economic consideration.

Another wise government decision concerning the major expansion of nuclear power is that there will be large scale localisation. A figure of 50 percent local content on the first power station is a realistic target. But to achieve this, South Africa needs to get organised now. There must be no delay, there is no time to spare.

One has to view nuclear power as a world growth industry. Local companies must view all of the world’s current and future nuclear power stations as their market. There are huge numbers of components and assemblies that can be supplied.

That view makes it highly attractive to gear up now to get into the nuclear power business. It is important to note that most of a nuclear power station is not nuclear. It consists of pumps, pipes, valves, electrical control circuits and a host of other technologies that are essentially the same as those found in a coal-fired power station, and in many other industrial plants.

Companies do not have to know anything about nuclear science right now to have ambitions of getting into the construction and fabrication business.

However, it is imperative to note that entry into the nuclear power business does require the adherence to strict quality and reliability standards. Companies will have to adopt and implement a nuclear mentality. That means carrying out work to top quality all the time, and maintaining a company calibre in which nothing is left to chance, and everyone maintains their total concentration on working to a benchmark of total excellence, nothing less.

Expanded nuclear quality programmes will be introduced in South Africa so that any firm can attend and find out what the adoption of a nuclear culture is all about.

The coming nuclear build is not only for the large companies. A company need only build something like a single type of valve, very well, to open up a world market for the product in the nuclear industry.

These days, when mentioning nuclear power, it is virtually a requirement to mention Fukushima. This 2011 incident in Japan was not a nuclear disaster, contrary to public folklore, but a financial disaster for the power plant owners. The number of people killed or injured by nuclear at Fukushima was zero. Total property damaged by nuclear was zero. It was a natural disaster that actually illustrated the inherent safety of nuclear power. The incident showed that the largest earthquake and associated tsunami on record could strike an obsolete nuclear power station, leading to a much feared reactor core meltdown, which then injured nobody.

South Africa is one of the oldest nuclear countries, having been in the business for over 60 years, and running a nuclear power station for over a quarter of a century. We possess a highly skilled and internationally recognised core of experts active in a set of interrelated nuclear fields.

It is encouraging to note that the SA Youth Nuclear Professional Society has more than 200 members, so the new nuclear professional generation is champing at the bit to get going in technology expansion.

The new generations of nuclear reactors around the world are being designed and built in a mass-production modular fashion. This means that many assemblies can be built indoors at factories and assembled on site rather than fabricated on site.

This approach leads to better build quality and reliability and, consequently, to progressive cost reduction and ease of assembly on the construction site. It also leads to the potential for more international co-operation, in that components and assemblies can more easily be interchanged, thus traded internationally.

The declared South African nuclear expansion plans should lead to us becoming a significant player in the international market. What is necessary is for there to be significant interaction and technology development between South African companies and international nuclear companies, to the benefit of both.

Also of paramount importance is for the government to interact closely with the business community so it knows what the local industry can offer, or could be induced to provide with correct incentives.

The nuclear new build is so big technologically and financially that the only productive way to handle it is on the basis of significant in-depth collaboration.

An additional factor of supreme importance is that the public must know what is going on. As complex as nuclear technology is, it cannot be presented to the public as a swirling mist of smoke and mirrors.

The public has to believe in the nuclear future and understand the decision-making involved. For this, the public must be informed about the fundamental and diverse factors that comprise the development and construction of nuclear power stations. This is stuff to be proud of.


Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and the chief executive of Nuclear Africa, based in Pretoria.