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Is Nuclear A Serious Option We Should Consider For South Africa?

Are we rushing into nuclear before we've given renewables a proper chance?

04/12/2016 05:59 SAST | Updated 05/12/2016 08:31 SAST

The South Africa government just released a plan for the roll—out of a host of new power generation technologies until 2050. New nuclear plants are being proposed despite the fact that the issue is mired in heated public debate.

South Africa's history with nuclear power goes a long way when it first built the Koeberg power plant, close to the city of Cape Town, in the in the mid-1970s. Koeberg, though, was viewed as a strategic pursuit to link civilian and military options as part of a common nuclear platform and capability.

The apartheid government wanted to build atomic bombs to ensure it faced no existential threat and at the same time constructed research reactors like the Safari 1 reactor, in Pelindaba, which is being used to produce radio-isotopes today.

Following the post-apartheid era, interest in nuclear shifted to civilian purposes and its atomic bomb programme was dismantled as South Africa signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Nuclear power gave South Africa a sense of eminence. Even the post-apartheid regime bought into this idea as it sought to maintain the inheritance of some of this nuclear engineering capability.

The consequence was that since 1994 there have been attempts to revive South Africa's nuclear endeavours through the foolhardy and failed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). Considerable funding was squandered on a R & D effort that was beyond the wherewithal of a state that had other pressing issues to deal with. The PBMR initiative had to be abandoned at considerable cost to the tax-payer.

Objectively nuclear has benefits like a low carbon footprint, compared to gas and coal, and higher capacity factors in relation to intermittent power from the sun and wind.

The pursuit of nuclear power and the grand vision that it will revive a new sort of nuclear industrialism has gain impetus, once again, as South Africa debates its future choices for electricity generation.

The debate on whether we should build any new nuclear plants has been intense - the new plan proposes 20 000MW by 2050. On the 22 of November a draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) was put out by the Department of Energy for public comment. It has been long awaited as the last IRP was in 2010 and an update was to have been released in 2013.

No new power plant can be commissioned without the basis of an IRP.

From 2010 to now 2016 the world has changed a lot as far as energy technologies go. In retrospect even though many of us have complained about the failure of government to put out a revised IRP we have, today, a better handle on renewables cost given the successful roll-out of the Renewables Independent Power Procurement Programme (REIPPP).

The key benefit of the REIPPP is that we have real prices to work with rather than speculative prices and more importantly we have proven that we can build these plants on time and without any further additional cost to the state from failure to meet construction deadlines.

The price renewables have come down beyond anybody's expectations thanks to a surge in global investments in wind and solar.

Renewables have, de facto, become a least cost option compared to nuclear and even challenges coal on price competitiveness if we are to include coal's externality cost given the future inevitability of carbon pricing.

The 2016 IRP, while still out for comment and final endorsement by cabinet, pushes the nuclear option out to 2037. In other- words not to start commissioning in 2037 but have a plant or two commissioned and grid connected by 2037.

The tendency is to overplay the cheapness of nuclear.

While the IRP suggests prudence and as many experts have also done so on various war of words over twitter the nuclear option, it seems, is still being hastily being pursued given Eskom's recent push to proceed with the early phase of procurement when public comments and final cabinet endorsement on a final plan has not been enunciated.

Be that as it may here are few things we should consider.

Objectively nuclear has benefits like a low carbon footprint, compared to gas and coal, and higher capacity factors in relation to intermittent power from the sun and wind. New nuclear plants, theoretically, have long life spans - anywhere between 40 - 60years- even though no plant exists today that proves that this theoretical limit can be met. These benefits have been noted by environmentalists such as George Monbiot and James Lovelock and they have called for pragmatism with regard to nuclear to deal with our high global carbon emissions.

However, the history of nuclear power plants are fraught with challenges which cannot be ignored and have generally negated whatever benefits there may be had from nuclear. There are several issues that complicate the decision to go with nuclear.

The first simply is social acceptance. In the light of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear disaster that happened five years ago in Japan public perceptions of risk and safety have been heightened. A disaster is a real thing that leads to inestimable economic costs over the long-term.

Secondly, the historical record, according to the World Nuclear Assessment report, show that nuclear build costs have been higher than planners originally argued and budgeted for to their decision-makers.

The tendency is to overplay the cheapness of nuclear.

Thirdly, cost-overruns and delays are routine and in South Africa with less complicated power—plants that Eskom is building, like world's largest coal plants Kusile and Medupi, only demonstrates that the planning fallacy is a real thing than the fantasy of proponents that they can do these complex power plants on time and at cost.

For this reason, if we take both the existing overnight costs for nuclear, based on international benchmarks, and a history of plant delays and cost-overruns the likelihood of nuclear being a more costly option is a real risk.

The prudent thing is to not cap the roll-out of renewables and build plants as we need them in line with future projections for economic growth and demand for electricity. This allows us to not over-extend ourselves in terms of capital spend and not only take the least cost option but also the least risk route.

These policy options are more compelling than a technology option that is prone to over-capitalisation, high risk of not being grid-connected on time and more likely to end up giving us higher electricity costs than not.

The level of uncertainty has higher certainty for nuclear than other technology options where experience, as we have with the REIPPP, validates our sense of certainty that we can do these cheaply compared to nuclear.