By Sdumo Hlope
To support the country’s climate change response, South Africa published a Low Emission Development Strategy (SA-LEDS) 2050. The SA-LEDS 2050 outlines the future direction, aiming to set the country on a low-carbon course while concurrently fostering broader socio-economic development.
SA-LEDS 2050 further identifies the economic sectors and their contributions to carbon emissions. It becomes abundantly clear that electricity production is the largest contributor to South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions.
While SA-LEDS 2050 acknowledges various economic sectors in formulating a low-emission strategy, it notably emphasises directing significant attention towards electricity production. The figure below shows the various contributors to South Africa’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
It is important to highlight that the share attributed to industry, transport, agriculture, etc., includes electricity usage. Consequently, a portion of that percentage can be reallocated from the respective sector to electricity generation, thereby augmenting its overall contribution.
According South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 and Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2019, numerous coal-fired power plants operated by Eskom are approaching the end of their operational lifespan and are slated for decommissioning. After 60 years of service, the Komati Power Station was decommissioned, leading to adverse impacts on the socio-economic conditions of the nearby town.
However, there exits a positive approach to transitioning to a low-carbon economy, including the decommissioning of coal-fired power stations, with a focus on favourable impacts on surrounding communities and the economies of towns.
One can assert, based on studies primarily conducted in the US, that achieving a “Just” energy transition is plausible while simultaneously ensuring energy security and improving the environment. The proposed solution involves integrating nuclear energy with renewable sources like solar and wind.
Let us discuss nuclear energy in the context of a low-carbon economy.
The International Energy Association (IEA) 2022 report suggest that reducing reliance on nuclear power could complicate and increase the cost of achieving net-zero ambitions. Therefore, nuclear energy emerges as a practical and the most viable option to replace the dispatchable power generated by retired coal-fired plants complemented by gas and intermittent renewable sources.
Extensive energy modelling in the US has led to the conclusion that, irrespective of the extent of renewables deployment, nuclear power stands out as a proven option to provide substantial, reliable and clean energy capacity at a scale conducive to achieving net-zero, with positive socio-economic impacts including job creation. In South Africa, the scenario is markedly distinct, given the crucial role of electricity in propelling economic development.
Numerous studies in the US have explored the viability of converting former coal-fired power plant sites into nuclear facilities, with a particular emphasis on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). The attention to SMRs is attributed to their compact size, occupying minimal space, their inherent safety in design and portability.
Therefore, this indicates that a significant number of Eskom coal sites could meet the criteria for SMR nuclear facilities, aligning with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criteria in terms of population density and safety considerations.
In 2019, a report from the Institute for Energy Research (IER) demonstrated that the nuclear boasts a favourable levelised cost of energy (LCOE) when compared to solar PV and wind, particularly when factoring in the hidden costs associated with these intermittent technologies.
What about the socio-economic impact of coal-to-nuclear?
Transforming a decommissioned coal plant into a nuclear facility can yield favourable socio-economic benefits. The majority of the coal plant’s workforce can be retained, though some retraining may be necessary. A study conducted by the Idaho Policy Institute at Boise State University forecast that constructing three NuScale SMR plants (924 MWe) could generate around 35000 jobs. These jobs would encompass roles such as nuclear maintenance artisans, non-nuclear artisans, radiation protection personnel and engineers, among others.
NuScale’s study suggests that an SMR-based plant would generate slightly more jobs and economic opportunities compared to an equivalent decommissioned coal-fired power plant, making nuclear conversion as the optimal choice for initiatives like SA-LEDS 2050. In contrast, solar and wind conversions not only require extensive space but also result in significantly fewer job opportunities.
By opting for nuclear conversion, it becomes feasible to build a plant that generates equivalent or greater electricity compared to the original coal-fired power plant. Moreover, this can be achieved using only a fraction of space, allowing for the incorporation of a solar PV farm within the same campus.
Given the reasons outlined in this article and various others, it is crucial for South Africa to consider coal-to-nuclear conversion as a viable option in its low-emissions electricity production strategy.
Sdumo Hlope, the CEP of the Economic Interventions Forum (EIFSA) and Princess Mthombeni, the founder of Africa4Nuclear and Head of Communications: EIFSA.