News | South Africa
A request from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) Minister Gwede Mantashe is currently being processed by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa).
Mantashe’s request is to build 2,500 MW of new nuclear capacity in South Africa, after a request for information was published in September.
Energy exert Chris Yelland reassured that Mantashe’s draft ministerial determination is only one step of a long process, which means the likelihood of a new nuclear power plant in working order in the country by 2030 is unlikely.
“Nuclear is still a long shot. I wouldn’t say right now this is going to happen. There is still a lot of water under the bridge before we even start the project. And in SA, we are notorious for delays.”
Yelland pointed out that nowhere in the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for 2019/20 does it state that a new nuclear project will take place. It only mentions the life extension of South Africa’s Koeberg nuclear plant, for another 20 years.
The DMRE, however, said the project forms part of its “five years strategic planing”. So far, the DMRE said it had conducted the preparatory work for the rollout of the programme in accordance with their plan.
News of the request has already received criticism from Democratic Alliance (DA) mineral resources and energy shadow minister Kevin Mileham, who said in a statement that the party will be submitting a request to the Speaker of Parliament for “an urgent debate on the process followed by the Minister and the Department to date, why such a process has ignored the IRP [integrated resource plan] … and why the nuclear build programme is being prioritised ahead of other forms of power.”
Mileham expressed concern of the ruling party’s insatiable appetite for nuclear power, explaining that it presents opportunities for kickbacks and “tenderpreneurs”.
He argued that Mantashe’s idea of going small with a nuclear modular reactor would be the best option, but that these type of reactors are not yet at a commercial phase, especially not in developing countries.
“South Africa will be the guinea pig for the utility-scale rollout of small modular reactors. But it is not in a position to be the bleeding edge participant in that space – we do not have enough technical skills or financial ability.”
Yelland said it was no coincidence that the controversial Inga Hydropower project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is also mentioned the procurement of 2,500MW.
Yelland and Mileham agree that nuclear power is merely “a backup” for an ambitious, yet failing hydropower project.
South Africa and the Congo signed the Grand Inga Treaty in 2013, with South Africa committing to purchase 2.5 GW if Inga III was built. The country can also opt to buy up to 30% of electricity produced from other phases of the Grand Inga dam. Inga has cost around $14 billion so far, and would produce up to 11 GW of power.
Yelland said making way for 2,500 MW of nuclear power is “the wrong decision, and high risk.”
“Renewable energy prices are coming down, gas to power is becoming cheaper and more flexible – but in ten years, nuclear prices are only going to go up. It is not the least cost effective or most flexible option, because in the interim, nothing will help us with our current crisis.”
The DMRE said nuclear energy is meant to be “a baseload clean energy source”, with “a very low lifecycle carbon footprint as compared with other energy sources.”
It argued that no funds have been poured into the 2,500MW project yet, and that electricity from Koeberg “remains the cheapest on the grid and is effectively reducing the average cost of electricity to the consumer.”
Mileham explained that nuclear is stable, and renewable energy depends on the weather. But renewables are cleaner, cheaper, and faster, and create more job opportunities than the specialist field of nuclear.
There is one snag – government’s reluctance to multi-task pushing both renewable energy and nuclear power. As such, Mileham said that renewable energy does not have a clear path, creating problems for foreign investors ready to invest billions in renewable energy projects in developing countries.
This despite a clear push from President Cyril Ramaphosa committing to procuring power from independent producers, and pushing for investment in renewables and gas.
“The DMRE talks a good talk, but operates with the handbrake on,” Mileham said.
“They literally do everything to slow the process for renewables and IPPs down. But in the case of nuclear, they are pushing it at a pace I’ve not seen before.”
Yelland explained that the nuclear space was being pushed by the department, and through organisations such as the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa).
“Necsa is in trouble. It is heavily overstaffed and counting on nuclear new build to save them. They are not financially viable, are running at a loss, and are rooting for nuclear for their future. Jobs are on the line because Necsa is in trouble.”
The DMRE noted Necsa’s negative cash flow, saying that Covid-19 resulted in “poorer financial performance”, which has led to “reduction of revenues.”
Mileham said the attitude seems to portray “passing the buck” of climate change onto the next generation, adding that starting small to medium-sized businesses through the ruinable sector was a sure way to support the economy.
Especially in light of estimates that South Africa loses R1 billion of gross domestic product per stage per day that load shedding takes place.
The unenviable balancing act must act in both the short and long term, Yelland and Mileham said.
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