State-owned power utility Eskom’s recent announcement that it intends to move ahead with a controversial initiative to request proposals for new nuclear generation capacity has sparked an intensive national debate on not only the need and viability of such a project but also its ethics. Politics aside, the intense scrutiny that nuclear is currently subjected to does provide an appropriate opportunity to reflect on the history of this niche energy sector, particularly focusing on when, how and why it came into existence.
It is perhaps fair to say that the generation of, or even the capability to generate, nuclear energy would not have been possible in South Africa without the existence of a significantly large but low-grade uranium resource, predominantly situated in the Witwatersrand basin. While the history of the development of the uranium extraction sector is superfluous to this narrative, suffice to say that it was pioneered to provide the strategic mineral components of the atomic arms race of Western superpowers (mainly the US and the UK) , which began in the late 1940s.
Because of the severely destructive capabilities of uranium and the fact that the world had just descended into another, albeit ‘cold’ ideological, war, the production, distribution and use of the metal had to be strictly managed by the South African government from the very beginning. Thus, the gold mining companies that had been contracted to extract uranium as a by-product of their gold-bearing ores were mere pawns in government’s broader uranium manoeuvrings, at least during the earliest years of the Cold War.
Needless to say, many mining executives were somewhat uncomfortable with the mass destructive capability of the product they were producing at government’s behest. Thus, as early as 1952 – two years after the first two pilot uranium processing plants had been commissioned on Johannesburg’s West Rand – the industry began to urge the State to consider using the mineral for peaceful purposes, such as power generation.
However, even if it had wanted to explore the possibility of developing nuclear energy capacity, South Africa was at that stage restricted from doing so by the US’s strict monopoly of all information relating to nuclear materials and technology, not to mention the veil of secrecy it forced the South African government and producers to operate under. It was only after the initiation of US President Dwight Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme in 1954 – aimed at repurposing existing nuclear weapons technology for peaceful ends – that it began to share information, particularly information relating to power generation, with its allies.
It was due to that programme and the subsequent signing of the first bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with the US in 1957 that South Africa’s nuclear industry was established. The 50-year agreement allowed South Africa to acquire its first nuclear research reactor, which would be known as Safari-1 (or the South African Fundamental Atomic Research Installation) and to secure a small supply of 90%-enriched uranium fuel for the reactor, as well as some scientists and technicians to assist in installing the reactor and managing it.
However, the US was careful to limit other countries’ nuclear capabilities and, thus, only supplied a 20 MW tank-in-pool reactor for the project. Given the small size of the reactor, which eventually went critical in March 1965, the installation was never intended for the production of nuclear energy on a commercial scale; rather, it was used for the interaction of neutrons with matter and the production of isotopes.
While this was a significant step for South Africa’s nuclear ambitions, it was far removed from generating nuclear energy on a scale that could contribute meaningfully to the national grid.
The foundation work that eventually culminated in the construction of the Koeberg nuclear power station, or, more accurately, facilitated South Africa’s ability to produce its own nuclear energy on a mass scale, started roughly at the time the Safari-1 project was commissioned.
Having been given some freedom to conduct its own nuclear research and, with the proliferation of nuclear energy projects around the world, in 1961, the South African government commissioned a R3.4-billion programme to investigate the feasibility of producing and enriching uranium metals and salts on a large scale; in other words, developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes. (That enriched uranium would also be used for the more covert objective of producing atomic weapons, but that is a story for another day.) The programme was undertaken at the government metallurgical plant, in Johannesburg.
After a decade of research and production at that facility, scientists came to the conclusion that the quantity and quality of the enriched uranium being produced were sufficient to support the construction of a commercial nuclear power plant in the country.
Meanwhile, in 1965, the Atomic Energy Board (AEB), at the behest of the Minister of Mines, appointed a Nuclear Power Committee to study the possible application of nuclear energy for electricity generation. After a thorough three-year investigation, the main subcommittee, which consisted of Eskom, the AEB, the mining industry, the railways and the Department of Water Affairs, confirmed the necessity for nuclear energy capacity in South Africa and concluded that the Western Cape was the obvious choice for a nuclear power station.
(It is worthwhile mentioning that these studies were undertaken at the very height of the apartheid regime. It was a time when South Africa was being increasingly ostracised by the international community because of its political policies and, thus, becoming more and more self-sufficient in infrastructure development, particularly energy infrastructure.)
However, as is evident today, the process of developing nuclear energy capacity is an extremely protracted affair. It was only in 1976, 11 years after the first power commission had been established, that Eskom finally announced its decision to build the country’s first commercial nuclear power plant. Construction began that same year and Unit 1 was synchronised to the grid on April 4, 1984, with Unit 2 following suit on July 25, 1985.