Opinion / 17 December 2019, 08:00am / Sizwe Dlamini
CAPE TOWN – South Africa remains one of the best mining jurisdictions in the world with more than $2.5 trillion (R36.2 trillion) mineral wealth still in situ.
This is according to Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who told delegates at the Africa Down Under event earlier this year that as things stood no country could match South Africa in terms of mineral diversity offerings.
Data from Statistics SA show that South Africa’s mining industry is one of the key economic sectors in the country, contributing about 7.5 percent to gross domestic product (GDP), 30 percent of export earnings, and more than 450 000 direct jobs.
However, all this is in vain if there is no power to run these mines. For mines to operate, there needs to be access to power and it needs to be reliable.
Power outages in recent times have risked production levels and in turn thousands of jobs as well as put pressure on the country’s ailing economy.
A potential solution has been for mines to generate their power. This has its advantages and disadvantages.
In some cases, private power generation has worked well when regulations allow for mines to build their power plants and also supply to local communities.
However, this may be a loss for some stakeholders as the national power utility would stand to lose the large mining customers, which impacts its viability.
The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy said it was considering short and medium-term interventions to both electricity and energy challenges, as Eskom implemented load shedding across the country.
Eskom has repeatedly failed to meet the country’s demand for electricity due to various reasons, among which maintenance of its power plants is key. The shortage of quality and the rising coal price is among the challenges that the heavily indebted power utility faces.
Independent Power Producers, which are part of the energy mix have not been able to help mitigate Eskom’s power supply challenges.
This leaves another source of energy, nuclear.
The matter of adding nuclear power to the national grid has always been a sensitive one, although the stuff generates huge amounts of electricity with minimal carbon emissions.
One of the main fears is that nuclear power also entails several risks, including weapons development, meltdown, and the hazards of disposing of its waste products.
Well, that is if uranium is used to fuel nuclear reactors. That then gives rise to another question. Why not use an alternative fuel that significantly reduces risks? Thorium has all these qualities.
South Africa possesses the world’s richest thorium mine, Steenkampskraal, in the Western Cape, about 350km north of Cape Town. The mine was discovered in the 1940s and produces valuable rare earth materials, as well as thorium.
Mining thorium is safer and more efficient than mining uranium. Thorium’s ore monazite generally contains higher concentrations of thorium than the percentage of uranium found in its respective ore.
This makes thorium a more cost-efficient and less environmentally damaging fuel source.
Why we don’t we use thorium instead of uranium simply boils down to wartime politics.
Thorium waste cannot be used to make bombs.
Thorium can be used to fuel nuclear reactors and it is more abundant in nature than uranium and generates more energy per ton.
It is estimated that one ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 35 tons of uranium in a liquid fluoride thorium reactor. Conventional reactors use less than 1 percent of uranium, whereas a well working reprocessing reactor can use 99 percent of its thorium fuel.
Nuclear fission using thorium is easily within our reach and compared with conventional nuclear energy, the risks are considerably lower. Compared to uranium reactors, thorium reactors produce far less waste and the waste that is generated is much less radioactive and much shorter lived.
After the recent power woes, experts concluded that Eskom in its current state was unfixable over the long run, however, it can successfully be kept alive in the short term through continual interventions on the financial and operational front.
This then leaves the government with a crucial choice, to save the country’s economy by implementing more efficient long-term solutions or to continue trying to save the power utility through short-term solutions and at the risk of keeping the economy on its negative trajectory.
The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) recently took a swipe at Mantashe for saying he should not be blamed for Eskom’s problems. “While it is true that Eskom as an entity falls under the Department of Public Enterprises, Mantashe is in charge of the energy portfolio and has been delaying the Ministerial Determination for the new generation capacity procurement as per the recently approved 2019 IRP.”
Mantashe needs to work towards a solution for the country’s worsening energy crisis, especially to save the country’s mining industry, which also happens to fall under his portfolio.
Mantashe might want to consider getting the mines to use nuclear energy as a source of power using pebble-bed modular reactors – which have been tried and proven to work – fuelled with thorium instead of uranium.
This could take a significant load off the national grid and Eskom can be left to repair itself with lesser risk to the economy.
Apart from producing power, there are several other options that nuclear technology provides for an economy such as South Africa’s. Nuclear can also be used to desalinate seawater and that would go a long way in addressing the country’s water crisis.