All countries in the world fall somewhere on this line. The US is high up on the line, with high average personal income, and high electricity consumption. African countries are nearer the bottom.
To put it bluntly, if you want to double average personal income you need to double national electricity consumption.
South Africa has no option but to aim to double electricity production. Romantic ideas of somehow vastly increasing national wealth, but decreasing electricity consumption are just that - romantic ideas.
I am all in favour of constant improvement in the efficiency of the use of electricity. Do not waste electricity, but certainly we must stop preaching a message that an honourable objective is to reduce consumption. It is not.
Electricity running through the country is like blood running through the human body. It has to run steadily all the time or the body ceases to function. Very fast. The country needs a base-load of reliable electricity generated every hour of the day.
It is irritating when your home electricity goes off and you can’t watch TV or the bathwater is cold, but you can survive that. It is potentially fatal when electricity fails in a gold mine or steel foundry. Our international image also gets severely dented when international customers hear that electricity supply to production plants is not reliable.
The country now primarily uses coal for electricity supply. Thankfully South Africa has been blessed with large quantities of coal, which is not the case for most countries of the world. South Africa is huge. People don’t realise how big this country is.
South Africa is the same size as the whole of Western Europe together. The Karoo is larger than Germany. The distance from Pretoria to Cape Town is the same as from Rome to London. But all of South Africa’s coal is in the far northeast of Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal. From there we supply coal-generated electricity to Durban, Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein.
This is like trying to supply all of Western Europe with electricity, but only from Austria. It is not a great idea. And it is risky. About half a century ago, South African planners realised this and decided to build a nuclear power station near Cape Town.
The amount of nuclear fuel required is so small that you don’t need to place the nuclear station near where you mine the uranium. The annual supply of nuclear fuel for Koeberg will fit into a home swimming pool. The entire lifetime quantity of spent nuclear fuel produced by Koeberg, referred to as high-level nuclear waste, will cover a single tennis court to the height of a person’s waist.
That is incredibly small.
What we need to do is build more nuclear power plants on the coastlines of the “three Capes”: the Eastern Cape near Port Elizabeth; Western Cape near Koeberg; and on the Northern Cape coast. A number of sites for all these proposed plants were identified years ago. And they are some of the best potential nuclear sites in the world.
New coal plants will have to be built in due course on what is known as HELE technology - high efficiency low emissions - to feed the country from the north, and nuclear plants must feed in from the south. Big nuclear plants needs large volumes of seawater to cool the steam condenser system, so you build nuclear where the water is, and not where the uranium is. Coal plants have to be built near the coal supply, because of the coal transport costs.
Reactors built near the sea are large. But there’s also a market for small reactors, about 10percent the size of the big ones.
There is a major market for these in countries which have no coal and no water, such as inland African countries. So South Africans developed what is known as the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), which is gas-cooled. You can build PBMR systems near where you want the electricity, in any country. The South African PBMR is still a world-leading design, and should be built. One PBMR can run a whole medium-sized town.
African countries such as Zambia, Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda have already announced their nuclear-build intentions, and Zambia actually started site-work earlier this year with the construction of a nuclear reactor complex for training and development.
Ideas of running the Sishen-Saldanha iron-ore export railway line to the coast on wind and solar power are fairy stories. Intermittent wind and solar, which is only available for part of the daytime, just won’t do it.
You need big “Oomph” from coal and nuclear to drive the world’s largest iron-ore trains. There is place for cyclical solar and intermittent wind, but one has to find suitable individual applications for these very variable sources. Powering the main national grid is not for them. And one has to be realistic.
The sooner we start building the next nuclear power plant the more secure our future will be. Eskom needs big electricity reliably to power the nation.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and chief executive of Nuclear Africa, a project management company based in Pretoria. He does consultancy work in strategic development.