Koeberg Power Station near Melkbos as seen from the air. Photo: Sam Clark

South Africa has a courageous programme to add 9600MW of new nuclear power to the approximately 2000MW currently produced by the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station.

South Africa needs significant economic growth, and it is internationally recognised that economic growth and electricity supply are directly linked.

We need more power, much more power. The announcement that the nuclear site at Dynefontein has been approved by the Department of Environmental Affairs is welcome news. The economic injection into the surrounding area and into the country in general will be significant.

Note that South Africa, from about the year 2000, entered into the nuclear expansion in a most sensible manner. A fleet approach was adopted. This means that the 9600MW of new nuclear power is split into three power stations. Each power station will have two or three nuclear reactors on each site. These reactors will be some of the largest nuclear reactors in the world. They will also be of the most advanced design.

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The “fleet approach” means that it is economically far more sensible to plan to build a number of nuclear reactors in sequence. By doing this one can move the highly skilled teams from one to the next, to optimise cost and performance. It is important to bear in mind two most important factors. The one is that there is a target of 50percent localisation in the minds of all the planners.

The second is that the nuclear power stations will be built by South Africans predominantly. The strange image in the minds of some people that a foreign country will build a nuclear power plant here is just wrong. Who do you think will be driving the trucks and bulldozers. South Africans; or will there be a foreigner from some far-flung place sitting in the seat? Who will pour the concrete? Who will build the concrete walls? Who will install all the electrics in the buildings? The list goes on.

Clearly when South African technology specialists select one or more foreign partners and recommend their design to the government decision-makers the process will be to work with the foreign specialists.

Their experts and our experts will work together to build the power stations. The 50percent localisation target will come into play. Obviously we will not import concrete, that will be an automatic component of the 50percent. But good South African organisation will be required to manufacture such items as valves and pumps and many more parts. All must be fabricated to the required nuclear standard.

Local people are already capable of welding to the exacting nuclear standards required. But we don’t have enough of these highly skilled valuable people. We need to ramp up the various pipelines to produce the skilled artisans needed. Any artisan who qualifies in nuclear fabrication can at any time get a job in aerospace, oil and gas, food production or any other industry sector requiring exacting standards.

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Nuclear skills grow the capability of the whole nation. Some years ago five potential sites were selected on the coast around the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Northern Cape. The idea is to “push electricity from the bottom of the country upwards” so to speak, because most of our electricity is now thrust into the national grid from the far north east in Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu Natal, where the coalfields are.

Nuclear partnerships are marriages aimed to last a century. A nuclear power station is designed to last for 60 years with a likely life extension of another 10 or 20 in due course.

South Africa is one of the oldest nuclear countries in the world, with an outstanding record of competent nuclear operations. We now have a great economic opportunity to make the most of the nuclear construction, to benefit local industry; and therefore the social fabric as a whole.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist, and is chairperson of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation.

- BUSINESS REPORT