South Africa, which currently has a power supply deficit, is at a point where, if it does not decide on its next baseload power station, it runs the risk of being unable to improve the current energy constraint situation, pro- fessional services firm Deloitte leader for infrastructure and power Africa Shamal Sivasanker tells Engineering News.
The country’s nuclear energy roll-out programme could prove a viable alternative to coal to provide baseload power in the future. It was reported by iafrica.com last month that Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba stressed that South Africa would go ahead with its nuclear power build programme, but not before all the concerns surrounding nuclear power have been discussed.
Gigaba also confirmed that South Africa had not signed agreements with any country regarding nuclear procurement.
“It would be foolhardy to hasten the implementation of the nuclear programme, unless we have determined well in advance all the measures we need to take,” he said.
Sivasanker states that the main challenge regarding the country’s nuclear energy roll-out plan is a lack of skills.
“From a skills-base perspective, the country is short on engineers and capital programme expertise for nuclear plants, and government must look at the realities to fund a nuclear programme,” he says.
Sivasanker explains that trends worldwide strongly favour nuclear energy and, despite the disaster that transpired at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in 2011, in Fukushima, Japan, several countries are proceeding with their nuclear programmes.
“There is a general pool for global skills in this industry and South Africa will not only be competing locally, where we are already weak on skills, but also internationally for access to these skills. This means we need to attract talent to South Africa too,” he notes.
Sivasanker adds that, when it comes to energy, the country has to consider the available options.
“South Africa has access to coal, which, from a cost perspective, is perhaps more attractive for the country, but this option has been met with opposition from supporters of the country’s climate change targets.
“It is also important for South Africa to have a long-term renewable-energy portfolio, but if one looks at the challenges, such as how to get more baseload energy into the system, given the current and future demands of the country from an economic growth standpoint, there are few alternatives,” he says.
Sivasanker notes that the reality is that there is growing acceptance of nuclear energy worldwide and, if the local industry decides to pursue this, there will be good support for the decision among several stakeholders in South Africa.
He adds that, from an operations perspective, running a nuclear power station is cheaper than running a coal-fired power station, owing to the increasing costs and demand for coal.
“A nuclear plant does not have operating costs as high as a coal-fired power station. “Nuclear power is a cleaner alternative, which is what makes it attractive over a long period such as 40 or 50 years,” Sivasanker explains.
He points out that no country in the world has come in on time on a nuclear build, as nuclear power plants cost a lot more to construct than coal-fired power stations.
“The risk associated with the cost of constructing a nuclear power plant is bigger and an overrun in construction time will imply that related costs are significantly increased,” he states.
Sivasanker says, globally, the nuclear industry is strong and several new plants have been commissioned internationally. However, following the Fukushima accident, some countries, such as Germany, opted to close their nuclear programme.
“However, countries such as Qatar and Poland are still considering nuclear energy as an alternative energy source. “There is no shortage of interest in this industry and many countries already have a nuclear footprint,” he says, pointing out that Japan is moving away from nuclear energy because it needs to diversify its energy mix.
Natural Gas Alternative
Natural gas as an energy source is a possible viable alternative to nuclear energy and Sivasanker states that gas turbines on coastlines are much quicker to set up than erecting and constructing nuclear power plants and coal-fired plants.
“The major challenge the country faces regarding liquefied natural gas (LNG) is how to get it to the point of consumption. Mozambique’s gas industry is booming, with gasfields going into operation, which is great for its economy. If one could get to a point where the cost of gas could be similar to that produced by coal-fired power stations, it would be easy enough to switch to gas,” he explains.
Sivasanker adds that, for this to happen, there has to be strong collaboration between and investment from the various stakeholders and offtakers such as State-owned entities PetroSA and Eskom, which entails the country investing in pipelines and regasification plants.
He notes that the advent of shale gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could be a good energy opportunity and will assist nuclear energy, but government needs to consider the feasibility of getting shale gas into a commercial form for gas-to-power production.
Sivasanker points out that the fracking process’s impact on the environment also needs to be addressed.