Nuclear power is the answer to South Africa’s energy woes

Nuclear power is the lowest-cost, most reliable alternative for baseload power generation.

Cape Town - 180917 - Power lines near Du Noon in the Western Cape. South African power utility Eskom said on Monday that it had less than 20 days of coal supplies at 10 of its 15 coal-fired power stations, posing a threat to national power supplies. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA/African News Agency

Published Dec 21, 2023


By André Thomashausen

The original South African Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2010) identified and approved a massive generating capacity expansion for South Africa. The Plan envisaged adding just over 38GW, to basically double the capacity installed in 2014.

The 2010 expansion plan envisaged installing “a nuclear fleet of 9.6GW (8 to 9 nuclear power plants); 6.3GW of coal; 11.4GW of renewables; and 11GW of other generation sources”.

The 2019 Revised IRP (Government Gazette No 42784 of 18 Oct 2019, p 95) lowered the planned nuclear expansion to a mere 2.5GW, taking into account that it can only be added “at a pace and scale the country can afford” (Gazette par. 5.3.6). It increased the planned contribution of renewables to 19.5GW and of hydro from 2.5GW to 5GW.

In white liberal circles, it has become fashionable to write any number of anti-nuclear comments (most of them uninformed), from the comfort of solar-powered homes and generous retirement packages.

The sentiments of the anti-nuclear lobby in South Africa are mirrored in the most recent energy policy document the “South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET IP), issued end of November 2023 by the South African presidency.

The JET IP presidential plan mentions the word “nuclear” only three times over its 216 pages, to record the existing (installed) capacity and fails to mention the modest nuclear expansion projected in the 2019 IRP.

The “JET IP” ignores that the industrialisation of South Africa commencing in the 1970s succeeded because the country then offered an ideal combination of reliable and cheap electricity, best port and rail infrastructure, and a highly competitive skills and labour force.

The failure to supply electricity in response to market demand has cost South Africa an average loss of 5% GDP growth per annum. South Africa’s GDP per capita has fallen from 8.000 USD in 2010, (8 times that of China in the same year), to a current 6.700 USD (half that of China in the same year). The planning failures for the energy sector resulted in 2023 in some 20 million adults being jobless and without food security, with over 8 million children suffering from chronic malnutrition.

Contrary to the JET IP Plan, not the “greening” of South Africa’s energy sector, but only the restoration of the competitive advantage of reliable and comparatively cheap electricity can recover the loss of the steel and most of the mining and manufacturing industries over the past two decades.

The milestone to focus on is an electricity price per kWh (kilowatt-hour) to the consumer of R1.60 in China, or R1.20 in Russia, or R0.20 in Iran. Germany, with a kWh price of R10.40, is not what would allow for recovery of South Africa’s industrialisation.

Baseload Issue

The technical feasibility of the installation of a revised total of 19.5GW renewable energy by 2030, envisaged by the 2019 IRP, depends on at least 30% of total installed energy output remaining available, as what is termed baseload capacity.

Baseload power sources are the plants that operate continuously to meet the minimum level of power demand 24/7. Typical renewable energy sources such as wind and solar cannot be used for the provision of baseload as their output depends on availability of light and wind and water levels or water flows in the case of hydro power.

Baseload denialists argue that there is no more need for baseload essentially because South Africa is already mostly de-industrialised. Evidently, if South Africa is into a pre-industrial economy state, such as for instance the DRC or Somalia, there will be no more significant electricity demand. To celebrate the demise of South Africa’s heavy industries as a way to dispense with baseload power in a national grid, is deeply misguided and cynically arrogant.

The further argument, that “variable” power generation as produced by wind and solar could be rendered as reliable as a baseload backed system, is simply false. A stabilisation need of approximately 30GW can never be achieved with battery or other storage system (for instance pumped storage).

End of life for Coal

The revised IRP 2019 provides for a remaining 34GW of coal-fired power generation in 2030. These must however be successively phased out to satisfy environmental imperatives, and as a result of plant life ends, coupled with global non-availability of credit for thermal power station projects (including rehabilitations or modernisations).

The most severe economic risk of retaining a predominately coal-based electricity generation is the EU Carbon Border Tax Adjustment Mechanism effective as from January 1, 2024. It will phase in CBAM levies on imports from non-EU member countries of electricity, aluminium, iron and steel, cement, fertilisers, and hydrogen and charge a carbon levy based on the embedded emissions generated during the production process. If South Africa’s “carbon footprint” is not significantly reduced, it could seriously hamper exports to its EU markets, including the ambitious plans for the production and export of green hydrogen.

When considering natural gas (LNG) operated baseload plants, especially gas-fired combined-cycle gas turbines (CCGT) as an alternative to coal, it is true that they have much lower CO₂ emission than coal or diesel fired plants. The capital costs of stationary (not floating) CCGT plants are a quarter of coal, and a fifth of nuclear power plants, with construction times in the average a tenth of that of coal-fired stations and 1/15 of those needed for nuclear power plants. However, the floating variant of CCGT, currently the preferred option by the South African government, eliminates all possible cost advantages of this generation technology.

The overriding criteria in regard to LNG-operated power plants is that although they have an improved carbon footprint, they do not qualify for attaining the global and especially European targets for the drastic reduction of CO₂ outputs and minimised impact on global warming.

Coal-based electricity generation in South Africa, if a 30% baseload capacity is to be safeguarded, can only be replaced by nuclear power generation.

Nuclear Cost and Build Time

A total build demand in South Africa for nuclear power generation of at least 30GW, equal to 30 new nuclear power stations, or €300 billion in investment, can be projected if the need to phase out thermal and especially coal generation and the scientific impossibility of replacing 30GW baseload power with wind turbines and solar panels are considered.

The world climate conference COP28 in Dubai from November 30 to December 12, resolved as one of its most important resolutions to triple global nuclear power capacity by 2050.

The European Union Net-Zero Industry Act (NZIA), also in 2023, resolved to include nuclear power in a finite listing of low-carbon technologies designed to enable Europe’s “green re-industrialisation“ and eligible for EU funding and regulatory benefits.

The rapid expansion of nuclear power generation in China is a model that cannot be overlooked. China, a BRICS partner of South Africa, has currently a combined installed nuclear capacity of 57GW, and 24 more units under construction. On December 6, China commissioned the world’s first 4th-generation nuclear reactor, a High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor (HTGCR), at the Shidaowan plant in its Northern Shandong Province, built with 94% exclusively national inputs.

One of the newest and most successful nuclear power plants, the South Korean-built Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates, can serve as a costing and build time model. With a total capacity is 5.6GW its total project cost was $25 billion and the build time was 7 years. This means that a nuclear budget for South Africa could safely be reduced to $6bn per 1GW capacity, making it a cheaper option than hydro or coal power.

The highest capital demand in the South African electricity expansion will be for the nuclear fleet. However, at a budget figure of approximately €6 billion per GW, it would come to less than 2% of one total annual South African GDP per nuclear power plant.

The initial capital cost of nuclear is offset by nuclear power being the lowest-cost alternative for baseload power generation. Average estimated generation costs (capital costs included) as per the most recent OECD NEA (Nuclear Energy Calculations):

In addition to its cost advantage, nuclear energy generation is rated as the most reliable generation option.

Modular Nuclear Options

Modular or small nuclear power generation options are often praised for their ability to reduce pressure on large national grids and increased energy autonomy of smaller communities, such as urban concentration areas.

South Africa developed its own small nuclear power generation solution under the lead of Eskom, known as the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR), projected to produce 150MW. The initiative was defunded in 2010 by then Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan who had openly committed to imported “renewable” solutions. The PBMR technology was eventually transferred to China whilst in the US smaller PMBR solutions, delivering 80MW, are being developed by the company X-energy.

The world leader in the field of small reactors is the Russian energy company ROSATOM. It produces the RITM-200, a 3rd-generation small modular reactor (SMR) delivering 50MW. This SMR is rated as 35% less in weight and 45% smaller in size than any competitor with a 6-year fuel cycle, with a 60-year design life and a 90% availability factor. The preferred configuration is a tandem solution, delivering 110MW and requiring a mere 6 hectare plant size. The construction time is given as 4 years from commissioning.

A fleet of SMRs could be easily installed at most or all of South Africa’s 18 coal-fired power stations, to successively take over generation at points that are already prepared for feeding large amounts of power into the grid. SMRs could also be installed at some of the 91 larger cities and industrial centres, to secure their continuing electricity availability.

The overall consideration however must be that reversing the de-industrialisation trend and current GDP decline will only be possible with a nuclear power roll-out. The achievement of a total national grid capacity of 75GW, as a condition for South Africa to regain industrial growth, is rationally not possible without a significant investment in newly installed nuclear power generation.

Dr Thomashausen is a German attorney and Professor Emeritus for International Law, University of South Africa (Unisa)