New nuclear power lacks a business case for South Africa, the chief scientist at the American-based Rocky Mountain Institute argues in a strident opinion piece published in the Business Day.
In the article, Amory Lovins, who is a strong advocate of energy efficiency and renewable energy, describes nuclear as a “bad idea” for the country.
There is, he asserts, “no rational basis” for discriminating against efficiency and renewables, which could provide the “same electrical services many times over at a lower cost than nuclear power”.
“[Nuclear] can’t compete with efficiency and renewables, by every relevant measure: cost, timeliness, financing, jobs, economic development, environmental and safety risk, independence, security, abundance of free domestic energy sources, and the social good of ‘energy democracy’,” he writes.
The South African government is planning to acquire 9 600 MW of conventional new nuclear capacity, with Cabinet having given its approval in December of for the initiation of a procurement process. On December 21, the Department of Energy (DoE) published a Ministerial determination opening the way for such a process.
However, the determination was signed in late 2013 by then Energy Minister Dikobe Ben Martins, as well as by the previous chairperson of the National Energy Regulator of South Africa Cecilia Khuzwayo, whose “concurrence” is required for such procurement decisions.
The determination is premised on the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2010, which is widely regarded as being out-dated. However, Cabinet has not yet approved the IRP Update, which was also drafted in 2013. It is understood that the DoE is working on a new IRP, which could change the nuclear allocation and make the Gazetted determination open to challenge.
In October, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg and the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institution announced that they had mounted a legal challenge against government’s plan to procure new nuclear reactors, citing various procedural flaws and affordability concerns.
In his article, Lovins argued that, renewables “thrive on the fair and open competition that no new nuclear plant anywhere has survived. Nuclear costs are murky, rising, and augmented by the long-term burdens of decommissioning radioactive plants and storing their wastes for millennia.”
He notes that South Africa’s previous “flirtations” with nuclear power “have not gone well”.
“Plans for a home-grown ‘pebble bed’ modular reactor were abandoned in 2010 after 12 years and R7-billion was wasted . . . In 2008, the government rejected as ‘unaffordable’ bids to build 3.2 GW of conventional nuclear reactors.”
He argued that renewables have made “astounding progress” in South Africa since 2011. Large-scale wind and solar farms have been built at a rapid pace, while prices have fallen dramatically under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme’s completive bidding framework.
“Both [solar and wind prices] fell below 5 US cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). New nuclear power in the world market costs between 9 US cents and 15 US cents per kWh — 12.4 US cents for a Turkish nuclear plant planned by Russia (South Africa’s preferred nuclear vendor), which has been delayed, unable to attract private financing, and is now suspended.”
However, nuclear advocates argue that the technology will be required to ensure long-term security of supply, particularly in a context where South Africa intends lowering its reliance on coal; the primary-energy source for more than 90% of the country’s current production.
Nuclear campaigners also remain unconvinced that “variable” renewable-energy systems will be able to deliver reliable, cost-effective electricity.
In addition, they argue that a new nuclear programme will have major economic and social spin-offs, noting that localisation and skills development schemes will be integral to any new build programme.