OPINION: Benefits and risks of a nuclear energy programme
JOHANNESBURG - The Department of Environmental Affairs recently granted an environmental permit for a new 4000-megawatt nuclear plant, close to the continent’s only existing nuclear site, at Koeberg in the Western Cape.
This is despite former finance minister Malusi Gigaba recently stating that construction of a new plant was unaffordable.
Greenpeace Africa has vowed to protest the construction of the new nuclear plant, saying it would infringe on the environmental rights of present and future citizens of the country.
President Cyril Ramaphosa conveyed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that the country’s economy indicates that South Africa cannot afford to build a major nuclear plant. Perhaps the permit granted to Eskom should be revisited.
Whether a country’s energy profile should include nuclear energy depends very much on who is asked. There are those who are for it. They argue that nuclear-power clean energy has life-cycle emissions comparable to renewable energy; it occupies relatively less land; and already features in most industries, including transport.
It is reliable, affordable and it comes at negligible opportunity cost, because valuable resources are not being depleted.
Then there are those against it. They say that it doesn’t meet the criteria for economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound energy.
It is inflexible, generates waste and is inherently dangerous. Further, it detracts from projects that develop sustainable and renewable energy, and the decommissioning and long-term costs of waste management are also often overlooked.
Developing countries run the further risks of high nuclear infrastructure costs, reliance on foreign technology and waste management. In the worst-case scenario, nuclear material and facilities can be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Whatever the argument, the powerful nature of nuclear energy is globally acknowledged. So important is the protection of nuclear facilities that the UN Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the only international convention on the physical protection of nuclear material, was amended in 2016 to resolve a fundamental weakness by including protection of nuclear facilities.
The broader global community recog- nises the power of nuclear energy and the need to secure the peaceful use of it.
Countries considering nuclear power programmes should, according to the amendment, implement national nuclear security regimes cognisant of global imperatives, but not every country has adopted the amendment.
If a nuclear programme is to be implemented, stakeholder support is key.
Broad-based transparent information-sharing and education by governments wanting to implement nuclear strategies is essential. To provide support, there are international organisations, such as the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles, that research and develop innovations in the application of nuclear power and provide a collaborative platform in support of nuclear strategies.
The value of nuclear power is evident, but is generally resisted due to its risks.
Nuclear energy is not the panacea to the world’s growing energy demands, but it is an option.
When deciding whether to implement a nuclear programme, each country should assess its own energy needs and choose how it could meet those needs, safely and sustainably, considering all the associated risks, costs and impacts of such a programme.
Ramaphosa’s approach differs markedly from that of his predecessor Jacob Zuma, who had championed plans to build as many as eight reactors that would generate 9600 megawatts of energy starting from 2023, and cost as much as R1trillion - a programme that critics said the country could not afford and did not need - and that was based on a Russian nuclear deal that the South African courts have refused to sanction.
Sonia de Vries is a partner in Energy, Mining and Infrastructure, Baker McKenzie, Johannesburg.