Key issues regarding the future of nuclear power in South Africa were raised at the National Nuclear Regulator’s recent second Nuclear Regulatory Information Conference, held in northern Johannesburg. The conference took place over three days.
EE Publishers MD Chris Yelland, in his keynote address on the conference’s first day, affirmed that decisions on the future energy mix for South Africa needed to be forward and not backward looking. “Nuclear power in South Africa was constructed in the 1980s and has served South Africa well for the past three decades,” he said. It was the cheapest electricity source in the country until a decade ago. But that was no longer the case, he stated. Nuclear power would now be more expensive than new coal power, or gas generation or renewable energy sources.
“Nuclear power and renewable-energy power technologies are agnostic: they are not in conflict. It is [the people] that bring them into conflict,” he pointed out. “I am not against nuclear technology per se.” He believes that nuclear power is safe, clean, and suited to South African coastal areas, where water is plentiful. He, like others, dreamt of nuclear power that was cheap as well as safe and clean. But, he said, it was still a dream.
“The nuclear sector needs to address the real elephants in the room,” he asserted. “In my view, the biggest elephant in the room is not the technology, but the business case.” There is great uncertainty about the future demand for grid electricity. Megaprojects have high costs and risks. Nuclear power plants also have long construction periods and high upfront costs. There are serious financing issues, both with the public and private sectors in South Africa (local institutions were unwilling to invest in nuclear projects). Nuclear power plants had to be run constantly at a high output level for maximum efficiency.
The risk associated with nuclear power was not low. While the risk of technological failure was low, when such failures did occur, the consequences were very serious. The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power station, in Japan, had very severe financial consequences. Consequently, the private sector was reluctant to insure nuclear power plants, leaving that to governments
Moreover, a nuclear new build programme would require a 100-year commitment to an energy technology and a specific vendor – in an uncertain world. He observed that nuclear energy was more prone to political interference because of geopolitical factors. At home, the image of the nuclear industry had been severely damaged by its association, in the public mind, with former President Jacob Zuma and the allegations of large-scale corruption involving him, key members of his administration and high-ranking officials.
Coal, however, had serious health and environmental hazards, both from burning it in power stations and from mining it. Coal power was responsible for about 2 500 deaths a year in South Africa. Yelland pondered what the outcry would be if those deaths were caused by nuclear power. The country had to take its environmental responsibilities seriously. “Most Eskom coal plants are not environmentally compliant,” he observed. And the utility had admitted that it did not have the money to make them compliant. Moreover, some of its coal plants were near the end of their lives.
There should be no more coal power in South Africa, he affirmed. But there was much uncertainty about what the country’s future energy mix should be. “We have too much baseload power in the mix. We have too much coal in the mix. We do not have enough flexibility in the mix.” There was currently no gas-powered generation in the mix, and there was too much diesel-powered generation, which should be converted to gas.
Should there be nuclear power in the country’s future energy mix? That question would be answered by the country’s next Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). The drawing up of the IRP was a highly professional process, he highlighted. “The IRP is due in August 2018. Ultimately, it is the IRP that will determine our energy mix.”
The current and any future investment in coal-fired power stations violated the people’s right to a clean environment, affirmed Greenpeace (South Africa) senior climate and energy campaign manager Melita Steele in her address to the conference. “Climate change is something we have to take seriously,” she cautioned. The country simply could not afford expensive, dirty and dangerous electricity generation as part of its energy mix.
“We don’t have a mix at the moment,” because 85% of the country’s electricity comes from coal, she highlighted. Relying so much on coal was “deeply problematic”. National electricity utility Eskom used 10 000 ℓ of water a second to keep its coal-fired power stations running, she pointed out. “We are seeing the end of the whole megaproject era . . . Eskom’s business model doesn’t work anymore.
“What we need is smaller, more flexible investments. Greenpeace does not believe that IPP (the current independent –renewable – power producer programme) is the solution.” This is because there needed to be more variety in the scale of renewable-energy sources used in the country. There had to be microscale projects (such as solar panels on people’s roofs, microgrids and decentralised renewable energy) as well as the large- scale IPPs. There was, she stated, no rational reason to put artificial restraints on renewable energy. Yet, such restraints now existed in South Africa.
“New renewables are cheaper than new coal and new nuclear,” stated Steele. She noted that, according to a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) study, renewables, plus gas- powered power stations for baseload electricity, would meet the needs of the country’s national grid. However, Greenpeace is pushing for a 100% renewables solution. Concerning the hopefully upcoming new IRP, she observed that “[c]ivil society can and will challenge an irrational IRP”.
Worldwide, the cost of solar and wind power is much cheaper now than it was 20 years ago, CSIR energy centre principal engineer Jarrad Wright highlighted in his presentation. From 2013, these two technologies had become cost competitive with other energy technologies. However, he cautioned that this did not make them equally valuable to electricity networks.
Today, the global solar and wind power generation capacities each exceeded the generation capacity of nuclear. But that did not mean that wind or solar actually produced more electricity than nuclear. They did not. Worldwide, nuclear generation capacity had increased by 14% over the past two decades. Actual electricity supplied by nuclear power had risen by 8%.
Regarding open-cycle gas turbines fuelled by natural gas, these were the cheapest power plants to build, per kilowatt, but one of the more expensive generation technologies to run per kilowatt hour. “[However], we don’t have these in South Africa yet.”
Wright pointed out that, in the South African context, nuclear power scored well in environmental terms. “Nuclear performs very well on CO2 (carbon dioxide emissions), very well on water [consumption].” But it did not score well on cost. Today, the cheapest energy option for the country was renewable energy.
However, if the nuclear industry could reduce its costs to between 70c/kWh and 80c/kWh, then it would find itself in the least-cost section of the possible future energy mix. This, he affirmed, should be an aspiration for the nuclear sector.
Energy Security, Poverty and Regional and Other Needs
Energy planning in South Africa needed to balance energy security and access to affordable energy while addressing environmental sustainability, highlighted energy consultancy NuEnergy Developments MD Des Muller in his address. While the country had maintained energy security in the twentieth century, only 36% of its population had access to electricity, he pointed out. Today, over 80% of South Africans had access to electricity, which challenged energy security, something that the country had experienced over the past decade in the form of rolling blackouts (or load-shedding), which are quite common in Africa. Getting the balance right was therefore critical for everyone.
“Today, we are again talking about excess energy in an economy that has been partially imploded by a lack of reliable and affordable energy,” he stressed. “Should we assume the energy complacency we adopted at the start of the twenty-first century, we will soon again be heading from one energy crisis to the next and find ourselves scrambling around again for expensive quick-to-market energy solutions.”
He argued that predictions that South Africa would be a low-growth economy were nonsense. The country had the potential to be a high-growth economy once the “economic suppression” had been lifted. That would have consequences for the country’s future electricity demand. Moreover, it could not be said that South Africa had excess electricity when neighbouring countries in Southern Africa had so much energy poverty. The Southern African Power Pool had interconnected 12 countries, within which electricity was being traded successfully in US dollars and where clean, reliable and affordable energy would be a welcome relief for the several hundred-million people in the region without access to energy.
A forward-thinking culture was needed for future energy planning. Power plants needed to provide safe, reliable, cleaner and more affordable electricity for the country’s homes and industries. Such power plants were not built overnight. Further, some 10 GW of South Africa’s oldest baseload coal power stations would be decommissioned over the next ten years. This, he affirmed, suggested that the imminent IRP would need to address these issues sensibly and responsibly, within the broad framework of the country’s development plans. This also suggested that a balanced and sustainable energy portfolio should be developed, using South Africa’s natural resources in thermal, renewable and nuclear energy.
Further, the choice of energy systems should also provide additional benefits like grid stability, and offset “massive” transmission losses by generating reliable power close to coastal load centres and boost those economies. “Coastal-based thermal and nuclear power plants are also capable of delivering desalinated water and preserving our freshwater resources,” he pointed out. “Also, powering a future electric transport sector from a predominantly coal-fired grid will never make environmental sense. We should therefore clean up our grid with the advanced technologies we have today, and make sure we have plenty of it to displace the vast amount of liquid fuels we use for transportation today.”
And then there is the matter of the climate. He noted that, worldwide, 66% of the electricity actually produced (as distinct from installed capacity) came from coal and gas thermal power plants (the figure for South Africa was 85% from coal), with nuclear, hydroelectricity and renewable energy together accounting for 33%. “Accomplished climate scientists postulate that an equal three-way split between thermal, renewables and hydro, and nuclear energy should drive climate change mitigation in the right direction,” he observed.
Regarding nuclear power locally, Muller pointed out that the Koeberg nuclear power plant had been very important for the development of Cape Town. It had provided safe, clean and low-cost energy for the last three decades, which had allowed the city to develop. “The technology – [nuclear] – is here and exportable,” he affirmed. “South Africa can help other African countries to move into the nuclear energy space safely and with certainty.”
For South Africa’s own energy mix, he predicted a balanced three-way split by 2050 as an achievable goal. The country’s energy demand would also be significantly higher by then. A third of this would still be thermal power, but it should be a lot cleaner than today, using a combination of natural gas and high- efficiency, low-emission, coal-fired generation. “Thirty-three per cent of our energy generated from hydro and renewables is a very big ask,” he affirmed. “It is a massive ask, even in global terms.” More hydroelectricity would probably have to be imported from neighbouring countries. “We also need to look at the 33% nuclear in the mix. That’s the easier part with the right procurement strategy from our nuclear vendors. We would be wise to also exploit some of the smart microgrid technologies where public and private participation can merge seamlessly and harmoniously.
“As much as the private sector would like to see them go, it is unlikely that centralised super grids and mega power plants will be completely replaced by small independent distributed generators and grids in the foreseeable future,” he said. “Southern Africa’s industrialisation and development will need a robust and reliable grid, including private participation in the energy sector that can drive real growth and prosperity for all.”
Reassuring the Public
Public engagement by nuclear regulatory bodies benefits the regulators as well as the public. So highlighted Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) director-general: strategic planning Liane Sauer in her keynote address on the last day of the conference.
(Sauer’s responsibilities include consulting with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. This is their official designation in Canada, and they are composed of three main groups: the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis.)
Public engagement allowed regulators to make more informed decisions, she pointed out. “It is also important for us, keeping us ready for change” – including societal change. “It helps build trust in the regulatory system . . . We engage constantly on all major projects and initiatives.” The CNSC also engaged when requested by groups or communities or organisations.
“We actually invest quite a bit of time on in-person outreach,” she explained. This form of outreach included the holding of open houses, presentations at museums, setting up booths at conferences and meetings with communities.
Her agency also engaged in digital outreach, mainly through its website, but also by email distribution, webinars, and the use of social media platforms. This was complemented by articles and letters in the print media. “We try and make it quite engaging for people, particularly young people.”
The CNSC also had a participant funding programme that supported the participation of the public, indigenous people and other stakeholders in the CNSC’s regulatory processes. That is, the agency funded people, especially members of indigenous communities, so that they could attend and participate in the CNSC’s environmental assessment and licensing processes for the major nuclear facilities and bring value-added information to the commission through informed and topic-specific interventions. (Canada, geographically, is a gigantic country.)
“We also have a public information and disclosure policy,” she reported. This meant that organisations and facilities licensed by the commission had to inform the public about both planned and unplanned events at their operations and facilities. This built public trust.
All decisions on licensing any and all nuclear activities and facilities in Canada were taken by the CNSC’s Independent Commission. This was an administrative tribunal, at “arm’s length” from the federal government and with no ties to the nuclear industry. “The Independent Commission holds all its meetings in public and they are webcast live,” emphasised Sauer.
The CNSC still faced a number of challenges. The bulk of the Canadian population was not really interested in things nuclear (the pro- and antinuclear parts of the population were both small). Social media could also allow false information to be spread rapidly and widely. And, unless their was an emergency, few people turned to the nuclear regulator for information.