Nuclear energy and hydraulic fracking: Are they twin evils or do they open new vistas of opportunity, asks Busani Ngcaweni.
Concerns over the nuclear programme and hydraulic fracking have turned public discourse about these developments into a neo-religious, zero-sum debate characterising them as good or evil.
Such discourse may appear illuminating but we should guard against the ease with which we allow ourselves to be swept along by a tide of polarisation and idealism that ignores the complexity of the public policy choices countries have to make to advance innovation, inclusive growth, sustainability and prosperity.
Let’s start with fracking, where the Treasure Karoo Action Group, the government and oil companies are the main protagonists. On the one side the Treasure Karoo campaign portrays fracking as evil. The anti-fracking documentary Gasland presents loud claims of how fracking contaminates groundwater.
On the other side, the oil and gas companies see shale gas as a silver bullet for the world’s energy security concerns. The pro-fracking documentary TruthLand sets out to debunk the myths in Gasland and overwhelms viewers with the “good of science”.
Both sides enlist scientists who preach the dangers or praise the benefits of shale gas. Both sides line up countries that either allow fracking or have banned it.
Fracking has begun in the UK, Australia, China and the US. France and Bulgaria have banned it. Even where it is allowed, it is heavily restricted and regulated and kept away from residential areas.
Regarding nuclear energy, leading energy scientist and National Planning Commission member Anton Eberhard warned in a recent article in the Business Day South Africa needed a plan B in case nuclear energy were to take a while to come productively on line.
We needed to be able to rely on other resources to meet our growing energy needs. Even if it is shale gas, its development is too far down the line to make a difference to what we need now, Eberhard said. If South Africa stayed away from nuclear to expand energy capacity, it would need to start building the gas industry and that means a greater role for offshore and shale-gas exploration.
Shale gas is a fossil fuel, regarded by some in Europe and North America as a “transitional” fossil fuel. Yet the EU regards it as green fuel, perhaps a clear signal of public policy favouring fracking.
The US recently announced that beyond 2030, through shale-gas exploration, it will not only be fuel-sufficient, but will also be a major gas exporter.
How much shale gas is there in the Karoo? We don’t know. Leading geologist Maarten de Wit suggested a while ago that we needed to look before jumping to conclusions.
He suggested something else that has been lost in the crossfire between the forces of good and evil – the reason we don’t know how much shale gas there is in the Karoo is we don’t have enough scientists locally who know about shale-gas exploration.
After all, this is a new phenomenon in South Africa. Yet we have world-renowned nuclear capacity.
What De Wit means is we need to invest in shale-gas research and development. There is a tried and tested way to achieve a target of capacity-building in science, that is to set goals. Or even set a grand challenge. A grand challenge is a call for a specific scientific or technological innovation that will remove a critical barrier to solving a problem or achieving a goal.
The Americans set a grand challenge to reach the moon within 10 years. They achieved it. They also set a grand challenge to map the human genome within 10 years. Achieved it!
The Chinese went further, with even bigger goals, that included innovation, industrialisation and poverty reduction. They too met their national aspirations.
Grand challenge is a dominant narrative in the government’s science and technology policy. Its 10-year plan names five areas in which to set grand challenges, one being space science and astronomy.
Earlier this year, the government met its grandest challenge by winning a global bid to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope in Northern Cape. The bid was not won overnight. It took more than a decade to put together and it will take another decade for the telescope to be fully functional.
In the 10-year bidding process, the country had to build research and development capacity almost from scratch. Shortcomings in radio astronomy capacity were overcome, through goal-setting and collective effort. Indications are the SKA project is destined for overwhelming success – all the way from innovation to building a piece of mega-science infrastructure.
Crucially, setting and winning the SKA challenge meant increasing, and developing new, capacity in the field of radio astronomy, just as our universities have been consistently graduating world-class nuclear technology engineers.
South Africa has to flex the same SKA and nuclear-energy muscle to rapidly develop offshore and shale-gas exploration capacity.
The government has already begun work on realising the goal of an additional 9 600MW of nuclear energy by 2023. This is based on the realisation that the country needs a diversified energy mix to meet current and future needs as stated in the Integrated Resource Plan 2010-2030.
With a proven record in the nuclear field for more than 60 years, South Africa can confidently claim the capability to safely and cost-effectively manage the installation, operation and maintenance of new nuclear power stations.
While nuclear power may evoke emotional responses in some, the fact is the benefits of the benign form of nuclear technology applied in South Africa are many, varied and scientifically based.
Among these is the fact the nuclear power industry is one the most advanced and technologically beneficial industries, comparable with space exploration technology.
Nuclear power has the advantage of providing electricity in conjunction with technological development in other applications, including health, agriculture, mining, poverty alleviation and security of water supply.
Since the late 1980s, when South Africa began to decommission its nuclear weapons programme, the country has operated a nuclear programme that aims to excel on the economic and industrial front.
Nuclear energy’s contribution to the economy and the country’s standing within the international scientific community is demonstrated by the output of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (Necsa), which operates the SAFARI1 nuclear reactor at Pelindaba in Pretoria.
Necsa is globally recognised for its role in advanced training of experts specialising in medical, industrial and operational nuclear processes.
Its Nuclear Technology Products subsidiary is one of the top producers of medical isotopes in the world, exporting to 60 countries.
These isotopes earn the country nearly R1 billion a year in foreign revenue. Koeberg nuclear power station in Cape Town helps to ensure electricity security for millions of people on the west coast.
Without Koeberg, the country would struggle to meet its ever-growing energy demands.
Compared to renewable energy, which make up 42 percent of the Integrated Resource Plan’s projected energy mix, while providing on average an estimated 25-30 percent of their rated capacity, nuclear energy’s availability can be predicted at 80 percent throughout the year, maintaining the base load required for our energy-intensive economy.
Renewables such as solar and wind, which contribute significantly towards satisfying household and industrial energy needs, cannot solely be depended on since they are weather-dependent. This is not a statement against renewables – to which the government has committed funds and has identified potential implementers – but rather a call for a nuanced approach, especially among anti-nuclear zealots.
Evidence shows a balanced approach to increasing the country’s energy security, while reducing its reliance on fossil fuels, has nuclear power right inside the mix, side by side with solar, wind and hydro.
Policy calling for a balanced approach and setting the grand challenge of an energy mix opens new vistas for technological innovation, inclusive growth and prosperity.
Just as in space technology, South Africa should intensify its regulatory, monitoring, public participation and accountability mechanisms for shale-gas exploration and nuclear energy expansion.
As the country enters a new era of technological advancement, industrialisation and competitiveness, so the vistas of job creation and poverty reduction rise.
In a decade, South Africans will look back and affirm the goals set today. Officialdom ought to harness and leverage from the zeal of anti-fracking and anti-nuclear activists, thus setting the safety bar even higher. Equally, activists should appreciate the political economy and recognise the scope of public policy, with the medium and long-term outcomes of the decisions made today.
In short, a new partnership, building on the spirit of the National Development Plan is required between state and non-state actors to make South Africa an energy-secure country taking full advance of its natural and human resources.
* Ngcaweni is a public servant writing in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.