South African nuclear site set to get green light

With cabinet having allegedly approved the nuclear procurement programme this month, the next step will be to give the green light to the environmental impact assessment of the Thyspunt site near Jeffreys Bay.

Dr Kelvin Kemm, who serves on the ministerial Advisory Council on Energy, says this process has been completed and the next step is government approval, which could come quite soon.

Kemm gave this update in his opinion piece below, which touches on the local economic benefits for Port Elizabeth, why South Africa needs nuclear energy and the safety issues around the programme. - Fin24.


By Dr Kelvin Kemm

BEFORE any nuclear power station can be built, there is a very rigorous process involved in the site selection and verification.

An important part of the verification process is the environmental impact assessment. In the case of the new nuclear plants planned, the environmental assessment process has been going on for half a dozen years.

The process has just been completed, with the last legally required public meeting being held in Port Elizabeth in December. The final recommendation was published a few weeks ago and the environmental investigation team has recommended that the Thyspunt site, near Jeffreys Bay be used. (Actually the site is nearer Oyster Bay, a few kilometres south of Jeffreys Bay.)

The site analysis and investigation has been exhaustive, in line with international projects. Initially, five potential sites were identified along the coast ranging from Oyster Bay around to the Northern Cape coast. Three of the five were then examined in-depth for years before the conclusion was reached that Thyspunt is the best one to start with.

It is now up to cabinet to make the formal government decision, based on the recommendations of the scientists.

The geology under the ground has been examined. So have the weather patterns, going back historically for many years. The fauna and flora have been documented and studied. The sea currents, sea life, bird populations, and everything conceivable has been studied.

The site itself is just under 4 000 hectares in size, of which about 50ha will be used for the nuclear plant. If the whole site is equated to a chess board, the nuclear plant will use one square. The other 63 squares will stand vacant forever, in line with international standards.

Stories that the plant construction will devastate the entire 4 000ha plus the seabed are just untrue. Every procedure, for activities such as moving beach sand, is prescribed in detail. Not only is this in line with international protocol, it is also just good business practice. The more one knows in advance which procedures will be used, the more efficiently the work can be done when building starts.

As soon as the government makes its decision - and let us assume that they follow the recommendations of the scientists and choose Thyspunt - then site preparation can begin.

That means building the access roads, levelling the ground, preparing for the concrete foundations and a host of other activities, independent of choosing the one or more international partners who are offering their nuclear plant designs.

The potential economic input into the Eastern Cape region is enormous. The plan is for as many local companies as possible to benefit from gaining construction and fabrication contracts, ranging from earth moving to water supply, accommodation, catering, component manufacture and much more as this project unfolds.

South Africa will be building a group of new nuclear power stations to add an extra 9 600 MW of nuclear power to the existing approximately 2 000 MW of nuclear power that we currently generate from Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town, which is the only nuclear power station in Africa.

SA will be building three new nuclear power stations, which will collectively produce the required 9 600 MW in total. Government can place two or three nuclear reactors on each power station site, depending on the type and configuration it chooses. (That is where this story of five or eight, or any other number of nuclear plants comes from, that one reads about.)

A mountain of debate and emotion

Nuclear has been in the news a great deal and the topic arouses a mountain of debate and emotion.

At social functions, one sees people with concerned looks on their faces, and in sombre tones, referring to the “lessons learned from Fukushima”. People nod and agree without any idea of what they are talking about.

So what were the lessons of Fukushima? The largest earthquake on record in the Japanese region produced the largest tsunami on record, which then struck Japan’s oldest nuclear power station. Note that it was a 40-year-old power station that was built to an obsolete 60-year-old design and was heading for retirement anyway.

What was the result? Well, the total amount of people killed by nuclear radiation was zero. The total harmed by radiation was zero. The total private property harmed by radiation was zero. Nuclear radiation hurt nobody.

Later the United Nations commissioned a multi-country task team to investigate the potential long-term health effects on people and the conclusion they came to was that it would be zero.

So the primary lesson of Fukushima is that nuclear power is far safer than anybody realised.

By the way, Koeberg is built to a larger earthquake and tsunami specification than Fukushima was, yet the Cape has no earthquake threat like that of Japan.

Albert Einstein’s famous equation

Just over a century ago, Albert Einstein ushered in the nuclear age, without realising it. He developed his famous E=mc² equation, which most people will recognise but very few will know the meaning of. It states that matter, like iron, porcelain, rocks or any substance, can turn into energy, if one uses a nuclear reaction.

In reality, the materials that productively produce nuclear energy very well are uranium, plutonium and thorium. Even Einstein, at the beginning, did not believe that mankind would actually be able to extract practical energy using his equation.

But he changed his mind during the early stages of the Second World War, when an atom bomb started to seem feasible.

At that point, the US nuclear bomb programme needed uranium, in secret, so they quietly approached Prime Minister Jan Smuts of South Africa to ask for uranium. We were dumping it, after we had extracted the gold from the ore. South African gold ore has uranium in it.

So, South Africa has been in the nuclear business since the 1940s, and is now one of the oldest nuclear countries in the world, predating countries like France, China, and Japan.

Why does SA need nuclear?

So why does South Africa want more nuclear power now? The answer is simple, but not readily apparent. If you look at the size of South Africa, it is about the same size as the whole of Western Europe. We are big by their standards.

There is no such thing as a German electrical grid or a French grid or an Italian grid, as they are all heavily interconnected. There is one large pan-European grid in which electricity flows backwards and forwards over their borders all of the time. So even though the Italians claim to have no nuclear power, they are supplied with nuclear power from France. France even supplies nuclear to England by means of cables under the English Channel.

South Africa is on its own. We have no big electricity producing neighbours to bail us out when we need extra power. We just get load shedding.

By far the largest portion of South Africa’s electricity is supplied by coal. Great, we have lots of coal. But there is a snag - all the coal is in the far north east of the country, in northern KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.

The distance from Pretoria, near the coal fields, to Cape Town is the same as the distance from Rome to London. Imagine if London drew much of its electricity from Rome. Ask the London Stock Exchange how comfortable they would feel with that. When I was in London to present a seminar, delegates were amazed to find that half of Cape Town’s electricity comes from the other side of Pretoria. Koeberg supplies about half the power of the Western Cape, while the other half comes from the big coal power stations.

By the way, a whole power station’s worth of electricity is lost by heat and magnetic dissipation as we push the coal power all the way to the Cape.

South Africa has to produce much more big power down south to supply the Western and Eastern Cape, and to lessen the strategic risk to the country of a very stretched system. Imagine all of Western Europe being supplied with electricity from essentially one place.

The only answer for South Africa is nuclear power. We cannot carry coal to the Cape. In case there are users saying: “what about solar and wind?” let me remind people that you only get solar in the daytime, if there are no clouds or rain, and you only get wind when the wind blows.

In any event, wind and solar contributes a very small amount globally. How many people know that Germany, two years ago, started an urgent programme to build new coal-fired power stations, because their optimistic wind dreams did not deliver? The first new German coal plant came on line a couple of years ago, but to dead silence from the media. In November 2015, the German company Vattenfall opened another new coal-fired power plant in Moorburg, a suburb of Hamburg.

Work for South Africans

South Africans built Koeberg nuclear power plant on time and on budget. It is a French design but South Africans, working with French companies, built the power station.

Who do you think levels the ground, digs the foundations, lays the concrete slabs, builds the walls, lays the water pipes, and so on? Certainly not imported workers. It amazes me when people use inflated financial figures and talk of “buying nuclear power plants” from other countries, as if we will just buy an entire plant with one cheque. We will not do that.

South Africa will choose one or more foreign companies to partner with and will then enter into a mutual construction arrangement.

People say to me that the foreign company may well supply substandard parts or plans, and we would not know of it. Nonsense. We have highly competent nuclear scientists and engineers who know exactly what they are doing and who know exactly how foreign reactors work.

We also have a National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), which by law has to certify every step of an acquisition and construction process. For example, welds on pipes are x-rayed, with great precision, and are checked to the finest detail, before being passed as nuclear compliant.

In turn our NNR, and our country, have formal legally binding agreements in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These agreements allow for regular and random inspections by the IAEA during which, by contract, we have to show IAEA inspectors anything that they wish to see. Nothing is off-limits to them.

As far as nuclear sites are concerned, a number have been identified over many years. Three prime sites were then subjected to intensive investigation for half a dozen years. All the site requirement factors comply with IAEA specifications. There is absolutely no way that a nuclear power plant could be secretly built on the old Durban airport site, as some people on some Alice in Wonderland flight of fantasy have claimed.

South African nuclear professionals are good and are internationally recognised. They know what they are doing and have monitored and guided South Africa’s new nuclear programme every step of the way. Nobody is making a sucker out of us. It is quite amazing to hear, at times, the completely way-out claims of self-appointed experts who sprout complete nonsense and insult South African intellect into the bargain. I am tired of reading of British or American professors of sociology, pronouncing from their countries, that nuclear power construction is beyond the capability of South Africans.

South Africa plans to double national electricity output by 2035, while Europe has no such objective. In fact, Germany has an objective of reducing electricity consumption by 25% by 2050. Many of our African neighbours are in a very difficult situation, being only 5% to 15% electrified. Their electricity production must double, and double again, and again. They have to do that for social and economic stability. We have to stand by them for the sake of the stability of the sub-continent.

So, we effectively have electricity commitments to contend with, beyond our national borders. Do not look to Europe for answers, it is not Africa.

Here, where the elephants roam and the bushveld seems half dead in winter, and the world’s largest sardine shoals make an annual pilgrimage, we have to solve our own challenges, with assured self-confidence.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and CEO of Nuclear Africa. He is a member of the Ministerial Advisory Council on Energy.