Johannesburg - The government is unflinching in its drive for more nuclear energy and will press ahead with the project, brushing aside concerns about affordability and urgency.
The Department of Energy says it is not seeking “to sell the nuclear idea” to South Africans, but rather to “demystify” it.
It is estimated the nuclear programme will cost South Africa between R300 billion and R1 trillion.
It is expected to be at full output 20 years after construction starts.
Research analysts, however, believe the nuclear programme – which will be the country’s costliest project ever undertaken – clashes with and contradicts the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which calls for a greater mix of energy and has a big focus on renewables.
The IRP is the government’s energy blueprint for the next three decades.
In his State of the Nation address in June, President Jacob Zuma highlighted the government’s support of a strategy to raise nuclear generation capacity in South Africa with the potential for the addition of over 9 000MW of nuclear capacity.
Deputy director-general of nuclear energy Zizamele Mbambo says the country plans to buy a nuclear programme from a “technology supplier internationally”.
South Africa has not yet identified a supplier, but the contract could go to either a Russian or a French company.
The two pressurised water reactors at the Koeberg nuclear site in Cape Town were built by French company Areva, and are identical to those that generate a large portion of France’s electricity, according to the company’s website.
The Koeberg reactors produce between 5 percent and 6 percent of South Africa’s power requirements.
“The country plans to buy a nuclear programme from a technology supplier internationally.
“We underscore the nuclear programme that is broader and it includes nuclear fuel cycle facilities, nuclear component manufacturing facilities, skills development infrastructure, regulatory infrastructure and of course the nuclear power plants, amongst others,” says Mbambo.
Regarding costs and affordability, Mbambo says that because of the commercial technical nature of the nuclear programme, “the department will consider different options from the technology suppliers to determine the price”.
“In line with the State of the Nation and the National Development Plan, the department continues its technical work to investigate various aspects of the nuclear programme, including potential localisation, safety, environment, economic impact, employment opportunities and costs, amongst others,” Mbambo says.
Tom Harris, a research analyst for energy and environment at growth consulting firm Frost & Sullivan Africa, holds a different view on the nuclear programme.
He wrote recently that the new strategy was reaffirmed by new Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, who said in her budget vote speech: “The nuclear expansion option is (now) a central feature in our future energy mix.”
She indicated that between R300bn and R1tn would be allocated to a nuclear build programme.
“While it is undeniable that the construction of additional baseload generation capacity is required in order to address the country’s issues of energy security, one cannot help but raise the question: why is such a strong focus repeatedly being placed on nuclear, despite several energy analysts holding a contradictory view?” wrote Harris.
On the question of whether the focus was being driven by the overall affordability of nuclear energy, Harris said “probably not”.
He cited the 2013 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, which estimates that the average capital cost for nuclear projects has risen from $1 000 (R10 700) per kW to approximately $7 000 (R75 000) per kW over the past decade, in line with escalating construction costs.
He said the latest Russian (Rosatom) nuclear deal in Hungary for the Paks nuclear power plant cost $7 031 (R75 200) per kW.
Mbambo says the cost estimates of R1trillion is not in line with the department’s estimates.
“The department has conducted a detailed cost study of nuclear power reactors around the world and can confirm that a price of R1trillion is not in line with overnight capital cost of nuclear power we have seen.
“The Integrated Resource Plan 2010-2030 has shown us that nuclear power is an affordable form of baseload electricity for South Africa, hence the calculations of the lowest cost revealed 9 600MW of nuclear power by 2030,” Mbambo says.
Harris said there was little evidence to support a case for nuclear generation capacity.
“Nuclear has exceptionally long build times and construction is often subject to lengthy delays.”
If the construction of six new nuclear reactors of 1 600 MW each was implemented, projects which took approximately nine to 10 years to be completed, “it will do little to ease South Africa’s near-term energy shortages”.
Harris said that in all of the most realistic scenarios outlined in the updated version of the IRP document, “the nuclear option is either discounted completely, suggested to be delayed, or allocated far less than the 9 600 MW of capacity now suggested by our energy minister”.
In line with the IRP – “which outlines baseload allocations for coal, gas and hydro” – the government was in the process of launching a series of new Independent Power Producer (IPP) procurement programmes for baseload generation capacity, Harris said.
Last month the cabinet approved the ratification of the Grand Inga Treaty with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Under the treaty, South Africa will buy over half of the power generated by the first phase of the world’s biggest hydroelectric project, aimed at generating 40 000 MW of power on the Congo River.