SA nuclear head slams German comparison

Matthew le Cordeur

Cape Town - It is “nonsensical” to compare South Africa’s nuclear ambitions with Germany’s mission to scrap nuclear in favour of renewable energy, according to the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (Niasa).

German ambassador to SA Walter Lindner told delegates at the SA International Renewable Energy Conference that renewables energy was the only way to go.

“After the Fukushima nuclear accident, Germany decided to fundamentally change its energy supply,” Fin24 quoted Lindner as saying. “It was the first time a highly industrialised country decided to give it up.”

He called on international partners to support change.

However, Niasa MD Knox Msebenzi on Friday said the circumstances of the two countries are extremely different.

“Germany has the European grid to rely on when the wind stops blowing,” he said. “Incidentally, Germany receives a large amount of power from France, who generates 75% of their electricity from nuclear.”

The Department of Energy’s Nuclear New Build plan to generate 9 600 MW of electricity is supposed to run from 2023 to 2030.

Msebenzi on Friday said nuclear energy was essential for economic development, the same day as the African National Congress (ANC) meets to discuss its major policies at the National General Council in Johannesburg. The question of nuclear will form part of these discussions.

Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo told Fin24 on Monday that the ANC should “take nuclear off the table”.

“The ANC needs to know that if it does go for the nuclear option as part of the (energy) mix, then they are on a collision course with the broader spectrum of the South African civil society,” he said.

Msebenzi slams media

Msebenzi slammed media reports that “exaggerated amounts related to the cost of nuclear power plants” and that “these huge sums of money would be pushed directly onto the taxpayer”.

Russian anti-nuclear lobbyist Vladimir Slivyak told Fin24 that if South Africa accepted Russia’s bid, it would cost about R1.4trn.

“This is simply a distortion of information,” he said. “Firstly, the cost of the new build needs to be viewed as an investment and not an expense, especially when the 80-year operational lifespan of a modern nuclear plant is taken into account.

“It is important to note that the project would likely occur in phases over an extended period, meaning that by the time the final units are being constructed the first phase would already be generating income through the sale of electricity.”

Msebenzi also wanted to dispel media reports that suggested nuclear was declining globally and that it is unsafe.

Nuclear currently makes up 11% of the global energy mix, according to the World Nuclear Association. “There are currently over 70 nuclear power plants under construction around the world,” said Msebenzi. “It is predicted that by 2050 it will make up 17% in order to combat global warming.”

However, Slivyak told Fin24 that the contribution of nuclear to the world’s primary energy production dropped from 8% in 2000 to just about 4.4% in 2014. “It will continue declining as hundreds of reactors are coming to the end of its designed operation lifetime in the next two decades,” he said.

Nuclear is safer than renewables, says Msebenzi

Msebenzi said that “another concern pointed out by the media is safety, but South Africans can rest assured that the technology that is being explored by our more than qualified nuclear experts is the best the international community has to offer".

“It is also a known fact in the scientific community that statistically, nuclear power is by far the safest form of energy on the planet when compared to others in terms of lives lost per MW generated, including renewables.”

However, energy policy expert Professor Steve Thomas told Fin24 that none of SA's bidders have proven their new technology.

“The problem for South Africa is that none of the latest designs, some of which have been on offer for more than a decade, is yet operating so,” he said.

“The first on-line from any vendor is not expected before probably 2017, so South Africa is inevitably going to have to choose an undemonstrated design if it sticks to its current timetable.”

Why nuclear is needed for baseload power

Nuclear power plants can now achieve net capacity factors in excess of 92%, whereas wind can only achieve a net capacity factor of roughly 25% and photovoltaic solar only 20%, according to the latest figures from the Electric Power Research Institute.

Msebenzi these percentages showed that nuclear was crucial to ensure baseload power was achieved. Baseload is essential to keep a reliable supply of power to handle the demand.

Renewables need better storage technology to increase its baseload percentages, but some renewable experts believe there are ways around this.

Msebenzi said there is still no economically feasible solution for these to be implemented. “In other words renewable energy is unsustainable on its own,” he said.

South Africa’s options for base load power are very limited, and at present it is dominated by large-scale coal powered stations and one nuclear power station, Koeberg, in the Western Cape, he said.

“There is hydro, but unfortunately in South Africa it is not available on a large scale and would therefore need to be imported from other African countries such as the DRC,” which is planning to develop the Grand Inga, which will generate 40 000 MW.

“(Transmitting this power to South Africa) could prove rather risky in the long run, as cross boarder supply risk volatility is almost a certainty,” he said.

That left nuclear energy, which he said is an environmentally friendly, safe, reliable and cheap method of producing baseload power.

Nuclear will re-industrialise SA

Msebenzi said that nuclear will act as a catalyst to re-industrialise the country.

“Government has made it clear that it will be looking towards the vendor that is able to offer the highest possible level of localisation, which means that from the very start of the project it will be generating tax revenues through local business,” he said.

According to Msebenzi, South Africa has the potential to become a major player in the global nuclear industry.

“We now have the opportunity to not only revive but expand our nuclear industry in South Africa, with the potential to export globally, much like our automotive sector,” he said.