Koeberg Power Station near Melkbos. Photo: Sam Clark
CAPE TOWN - Adri Senekal De Wet, the executive editor of Independent Media, interviews Dr Kelvin Kemm, a nuclear physicist and chairperson of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation. This is the first of a two-part series.

Kelvin Kemm

Question: Where do we stand with electricity supply and the goals of the National Development Programme (NDP)?

Answer: Note the D in NDP. This is Development. For development you need energy. Development energy is mainly electricity. There is an internationally well-known graph, which shows that personal income and economic development is directly proportional to electricity consumption. To put it bluntly, if you want to double the average wage you need to double national electricity consumption. This is a direct signal of economic health and welfare.

Q: So we need more electricity?

A: Yes, we need a target of doubling electricity consumption. As an illustration, South Korea has the same size population as South Africa, on a much smaller piece of land, but uses double the electricity that we do. Unsurprisingly, their average living standard is much higher than ours. They export lots of consumer goods. It took electricity to make them.

Q: But we were told a few weeks ago that South Africa has surplus electricity.

A: No, that is not an accurate picture. If you look at the predicted electricity consumption graph from 2005 you will find that the prediction said that we should now be using 50percent more electricity than we are.

But an economic downturn hit us and in 2007/2008 we ran out of electricity. So Eskom, officially supported by the authorities, launched a massive advertising campaign - “Don’t buy our product.” Can you imagine a motor car manufacturer advertising - “Don’t buy our cars, use a bicycle instead.” Actually, we really have an “economic growth shortage” and not really “an electricity surplus”.

We now see the results. All over the country; companies closing down, economy stalling, job losses. Thankfully, President Cyril Ramaphosa has stated that an objective of his is to revitalise industry and manufacturing. In other words - aim for increased electricity consumption.

But to address another aspect of your question: our so-called surplus contains 3500MW of very expensive diesel gas power. This is so expensive that it is permanently kept switched off and is only used in a dire emergency. This, in essence, is rows of jet engines which burn pure diesel. Can you imagine the cost of thousands of diesel pumps at garages, pouring pure diesel into jet engines 24/7.

Also, we have the highly intermittent and unreliable solar and wind. You can’t have 1000 mine workers underground on a shift hoping that the wind is blowing at the end of the shift.

Q: So what about wind and solar?

A: Wind and solar are extremely expensive, contrary to some popular belief.

Eskom right now is buying wind and solar power at higher than the selling price. What is more is that they signed 20-year contracts. So they purchased a guaranteed 20-year loss for the consumers to pay for. Much of that money flows overseas. But it is worse than that. We have to consider the difference between a service and a commodity.

Eskom supplies a service. This means that when you flick your light switch on you expect the lights to come on. Eskom can’t say: "Sorry, your house lights won't work at night, because your house is fed by a solar power plant and, er, the sun does not shine at night.”

The consumer wants to be able to turn the lights on at midnight. So Eskom, to provide that service, has to have coal and nuclear power permanently available to supplement the solar at night and the wind when the wind does not blow.

The cost of that standby power should be added to the cost of the solar and wind, but they don't do that.

One must ask: Where is the standby for the new solar and wind which has just been committed?

By the way, the nuclear power from Koeberg is Eskom’s cheapest electricity.

Q: Can you expand on the commodity and service concept.

A: How would you feel having open heart surgery with the operating theatre powered by a wind turbine. You had better have all your friends and family furiously praying for wind. But they don’t have to pray for uranium. We have tons of it; all day, every day.

The wind and solar people sell a commodity. You get it, if and when they have it. They are not obligated to supply a service.

The cost of the actual service, 24/7, is Eskom’s problem; and yours, because you pay for it.

To illustrate this another way: if you want to buy potatoes, beans and carrots, you could go to a farmer’s gate and ask him. He could say: “Sorry, they are still growing, come back in a month." So instead you can go to a supermarket where you know you will find them, because the chain of process to the supermarket prepares and freezes them and packs them in sealed packages. So, choose your lifestyle.

If business and industrial leaders choose wind and solar, then don’t squeal in a year’s time when one windless night your 1000 miners are stuck underground with no lights or ventilation. So, choose your lifestyle.

Q: So what is the solution?

A: The answer is to run the country on coal and nuclear power. We have all the coal and nuclear we want, in our own ground.

South Africa is the same size as the whole of Western Europe, but it is effectively a triangle standing on the apex. All our coal is situated in the right hand angle, in Mpumulanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Our one nuclear power station, Koeberg, is at the bottom. It supplies about half of all the power to the Western Cape. The rest comes from the coalfields. The distance from Cape Town to the coalfields is the same as London to Rome. It would be silly if someone were to propose powering half of London from Rome. But the Western Cape does that. We saw what happened there once before, when the Cape Town lights went out.

As the economy grows, the risk goes up, unless we build more nuclear power stations on the coastline of the "three Capes"; Eastern, Western and Northern.

South Africa is one of the oldest nuclear countries in the world. We know what we are doing in this game.