South Africa's chances of utilising nuclear energy as a bedrock for the energy mix are clear and feasible, experts agree, especially as the country already has at least two sites with Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) approvals and a clear pathway to a request for quotation by March next year.
This follows Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe publicly breathing life last month to the plan to acquire 2500 Megawatts of nuclear energy.
The generator will be Eskom or any other organ of state or in partnership with a business.
The buyer of the electricity will be Eskom, or any entity designated as the buyer of electricity after Eskom unbundles.
The procurer (the buyer) of the new nuclear power station will be the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, or another organ of state, or in partnership with a business. The procurer will determine the procurement process.
Nuclear physicist Kelvin Klemm said in an interview: “It is important that we get the nuclear energy now, not just for the current crises but for the future of the country. What is more, we have the technology of the HTMR-100 (nuclear reactor) that other countries want to buy from us.“
His perspective is that South Africa is not starting off a low base, not only because of the IP in the technology, but due to the fact that the groundwork for more nuclear energy in South Africa is already done such as the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) for sites at Thyspunt, which is near St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape, and Duynefontein, next to Koeberg in the Western Cape.
“It is no more expensive to put up nuclear power than it is for other plants, like your coal-fired power station. The costs are comparable. You need concrete, foundations, cabling and piping. Nuclear is cheaper over the long term," Kemm said.
Sejako Tolo, the head of facility engineering at Safari-1 Research Reactor at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, said South Africa possessed existing expertise and infrastructure that formed a strong foundation for the expansion of nuclear power.
Tolo said the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa and the successful operation of the Koeberg power station demonstrated the presence of skilled personnel and accumulated knowledge.
"These entities are equipped with the necessary skill-set to effectively implement nuclear projects, prioritising efficiency, safety and sustainability However, there is a risk of losing skilled personnel to countries currently constructing nuclear power plants such as the UAE and Europe.
"If we do not start, our problems will not be solved. We are extremely late. Nuclear seem to be a viable option compared to renewables, “ she said.
Hlathi Madela, an executive director of the South African Energy Forum, said the process had long been in the making with the two identified sites, Thyspunt and Duynefontein, assessed. One of the sites needed upgrades.
He said an initial plan to acquire 9 600MW had collapsed on the stringent regulatory requirements and the matter seemed to die a natural death with no public communication until the project had been brought up as a 2 500MW project.
"The country is not going to close up tomorrow. We can't force nuclear power as a solution in the next 18 months. Nuclear and gas are among the sources that we produce below cost of production electricity to attract investors and heavy users of energy like aluminium factories. The escalation of prices will come down as soon as we have competitive electricity from nuclear and gas sources,“ Madela said.
He said there were no constraints with financing for the project as several bigger economies were in the running but with different funding models.
“Nuclear is to be funded by the vendor. We have, for example, Russia and China who would like to bring in their own expertise if they are awarded the project. The Americans want a partial mix of in a development finance kind of situation, while France does not have the money and is not in contention,” Madela said.
He said in view of sanctions against Russia, South Africa would only be vilified if it actually placed an order
On the threats of South Africa’s products being shunned on the global stage because of the mix of coal and nuclear, Madela said there had been a sharp turnaround in global sentiment after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which had restored the role of nuclear in the global energy mix.
He said local banks too needed to be brought up to speed with local requirements as they took the position of their West-based headquarters and did not consider the local scenario.
“The South African leadership ought to inform the banks so they are able to underwrite these funds from wherever they come from,“ he said.
However, Trudi Malan, the spokesperson for the Thyspunt Alliance, said it was highly unlikely that Thyspunt would be used as the site for the nuclear substation because the group had won a ruling that protected the area from large-scale industrial developments.
“It was not an objection to nuclear power only. We object to any industrial-scale projects which may harm the heritage of the area. That site is the source of man’s modern evolution from Stone Age to Middle Age. There are a lot of rock paintings and other relics that declare it a heritage site," Malan said.