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This opinion piece discusses coal v nuclear energy and concludes indisputably that coal, and not nuclear, is the correct way forward for the future of power generation in South Africa.

Apart from potential political issues, a number of reasons for SA to go nuclear have been offered, such as: some of our old coal-burning power stations are old and inefficient, and will need to be replaced before too long; South Africa has committed itself to reducing its “carbon footprint”, and has introduced carbon taxes in an effort to discourage the use of fossil fuels; because of operational problems, there seems to be a practical limit to the proportion of carbon-free renewable energy generators (wind and solar) that can be worked into the grid, which needs a base load of thermal power stations (fossil or nuclear) to be able to operated efficiently.

The US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa’s) Goddard Space Flight Centre has produced two videos that illustrate the distribution of carbon in the atmosphere. The first video was produced from data that was assembled in 2006, and the second in 2014/5.

Both demonstrate very clearly that countries in the northern hemisphere generate by far the most carbon dioxide: in comparison, we in the southern hemisphere generate very little.

This, of course, is to be expected, but there is another major point that needs to be taken into consideration: the northern hemisphere relies mainly on plant growth on land to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but through its long winter most plants are dormant. Therefore, more carbon gases are generated in the northern hemisphere than it has the capacity to remove, and this leads to a surplus that scientists have concluded causes climate change.

In contrast, most of the southern hemisphere is covered by its oceans: these very easily soak up not only all the carbon gases that are generated on its relatively tiny inhabited land masses, but also any carbon that atmospheric and ocean currents might transport across the equator.

The obvious conclusion is that the northern hemisphere countries are overwhelmingly the cause of any carbon problems that the Earth might be suffering, while carbon releases by the southern hemisphere countries can be ignored.

Read also: Eskom wants to mothball five plants

At this point, there are other Nasa research observations relating to climate change that bear mentioning: While glaciers and sea ice in the northern hemisphere appear to be retreating, total Antarctic ice is actually increasing

The countries of the northern hemisphere have the longest history of industrialisation, which has been the cause of most pollution historically, but this has allowed them to create the wealth that should now be mobilised towards efforts to reduce their generation of carbon gases.

By comparison, most of the countries in the southern hemisphere are relatively poor, and can ill afford to go to expensive measures to reduce their carbon footprint.

No reason

The conclusion from the foregoing is that there is absolutely no reason why South Africa should stop the use of fossil fuel in favour of nuclear plants.

If South Africa wants to be seen to be reducing our carbon footprint, we would be doing our bit by replacing old and inefficient coal-burning power stations with new plants.

Coal-burning stations are inherently more flexible to operate than nuclear-powered plants, because their electricity output can be varied by adjusting their coal feed, but the other major benefit is in their substantially lower overall costs of financing, construction, operation, and finally decommissioning.

Eskom will have gained substantial recent expertise in the planning and construction of the Medupi and Kusile power stations. Consequently, clear of ideology, it should not base future cost estimates entirely on the inflated costs of these two stations.

In contrast to using fossil fuels, there is every reason why we should not go nuclear.

Brian Spottiswoode is an engineer in Somerset West. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

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