Government nuclear plan sends mixed signals

Karen Watkins

Where does South Africa stand with nuclear? If South Africa’s nuclear programme goes ahead, the demand for uranium would steadily rise. Local uranium reactor demand would grow from the current 290 tons of uranium a year, to 3 300 tons a year, once all the reactors are operational – an 11-fold increase.

Nuclear reactors require heavy metal uranium to function, in particular low-enriched uranium.

The CEO of Peninsula Energy, Gus Simpson, says the plan for the Tasman RSA mine at Ryst Kuil about 40km south-east of Beaufort West in the Karoo is not dependent on the country’s plans for nuclear procurement.

Mr Simpson said the uranium ore from the Karoo could supply the country’s planned reactors if South Africa opens a uranium beneficiation operation.

During the apartheid-era, the Valindaba facility was able to convert uranium for nuclear weapons, but South Africa voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons in 1991, along with other countries.

On Wednesday March 9, the government issued a request for proposals to be submitted by the end of the month to add 9 600 megawatts of nuclear power to the national grid. This paved the way for nuclear vendors to present proposals to build six to eight nuclear reactors.

UCT energy policy expert Hilton Trollip says the government’s rush to sign a nuclear deal is unnecessary and unwise, as South Africa does not need 9 600 megawatts of new baseload power by 2025.

Mining for uranium is also in direct conflict with the ANC’s National Development Plan (NDP) and the ANC’s 2015 national general council resolutions. Both stipulate that it is vital that an in-depth cost-benefit investigation be done into the financial viability of nuclear energy, including a re-assessment of such a programme, and that government must also announce publicly that nuclear energy can only be procured in line with the legal prescripts.

South Africans are receiving mixed messages from government.

In his State of the Nation Address in February, President Jacob Zuma said nuclear energy was still an integral part of the country’s energy mix.

“Our plan is to introduce 9 600 megawatts of nuclear energy in the next decade in addition to running Koeberg nuclear power plant.”

And yet in his Budget speech on Wednesday February 24, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said: “The nuclear-build programme is on the backburner as it was unaffordable.”

He did, however, say Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was doing “preparatory work for investment in nuclear power”.

It is estimated that the six to eight nuclear reactors will cost taxpayers between R800 billion and R1.6 trillion. Based on findings from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the (levelised) cost of electricity from nuclear power is 25 percent more expensive than new coal or solar photovoltaic, and 67 percent more expensive than wind.

The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) already has a business plan to set up a conversion and fuel fabrication plant.

“In my view, uranium is South Africa’s new gold,” said Necsa CEO Phumzile Tselane, adding that it could take three to five years to set up.