Will South Africa ever build a new nuclear power plant (NPP)? Well, and I hope the revelation doesn’t ruin the dramatic flow of my narrative, I haven’t a clue. I don’t think anyone does. There is a lot of opposition to any such idea. Or, rather, there is a lot of opposition to the idea among those elites with easy access to the media. Surveys on the question are rarely conducted in this country; the last such national survey seems to have been conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in 2012.
That survey revealed a staggeringly high proportion of “don’t know” responses, the HSRC researchers noted. In response to a statement that South Africa should continue to operate the Koeberg NPP, near Cape Town, no fewer than 44% of respondents said “don’t know”. (The figure for “strongly agree” was 14%; for “agree” 26% – giving a combined total of 40%; “neither agree nor disagree” got 9%; “disagree” was the choice of 6% and “strongly disagree” was selected by 2%.) To the statement that South Africa should build new NPPs to produce more electricity in the country, 42% opted for “don’t know”. (“Strongly agree” scored 15% and “agree” 23%, for a combined favourable total of 38%; “neither agree or disagree” came in at 11%, “disagree” at 6% and “strongly disagree” at 3%.)
The high “don’t know” levels were put down to the lack of education and information about nuclear energy among those surveyed. Since then, there has been much sound and fury about nuclear energy and new NPPs and whether they are needed or not. But whether this has actually increased public knowledge or just confused matters even more seems, currently, to be unknown. And it has to be pointed out that, while the pronuclear responses in the survey greatly outnumbered the antinuclear responses (40% to 8% regarding keeping Koeberg, 38% to 9% regarding building more NPPs), the pronuclear responses fell short of a majority by a pretty decent margin.
A few other points need to be made. The HSRC survey was published in June 2012. The terrible earthquake and tsunami which knocked out the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP, causing three reactors to undergo core meltdowns, occurred in March 2011, so the opinions found by the survey were post-Fukushima attitudes. A quite separate issue is that people can be perfectly happy with nuclear energy technology, regard it as very safe and efficient, but see it as too expensive and be unwilling to pay for it. Another unrelated point is that public attitudes – including willingness to pay – can be influenced by whether the technology is largely imported or predominantly domestic.
Not many countries in the world have indigenous NPP technology. Once, South Africa was one of them, with the pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) project. Started in 1999, this was effectively terminated in 2010, being placed in care and maintenance, the project costing some R10-billion. (State-owned power utility Eskom is now trying to find buyers for its PBMR reactor and fuel technologies and intellectual property.) The PBMR was not only a modular, but small reactor, offering much greater flexibility (in location and application) and much lower cost than the far bigger conventional NPPs that were (and still are) the norm.
At that time, there were local critics who did not take the idea of small modular reactors (SMRs) seriously. Today, development of SMR technology is, for example, a serious project of the British government. SMRs include advanced modular reactors (AMRs). The PBMR was an AMR. The UK has allocated £44-million to AMR research and development projects in a programme that is open to foreign enterprises and projects.
The British are also seriously looking at micronuclear reactors (MNRs). While an SMR has an electricity output of 30 MWe to 300 MWe, an MNR has an output of 30 MWe or less. (The Russians have already developed and deployed MNRs.)
Should South Africa reactivate the PBMR project? Alas, this question is irrelevant: neither government nor State-owned companies have the money for it. As for South African private-sector companies, they may very well have the money, but they do not have the mindset to invest in such a project. Of course, PBMRs will be built, but in China, which also acquired the basic technology (originally developed in Germany). It is possible that South Africa’s PBMR technology and assets could be bought by a consortium of overseas and local investors, the overseas involvement giving reassurance to the local partners. Would government allow Eskom to sell the PBMR technology to entirely overseas bidders? I have no idea.
However, what is clear is that there is a lot of investment and innovation going into nuclear around the world. In the US, private-sector companies are developing SMRs. NuScale Power, for example, hopes to have its first SMR operational (in the US) by 2024. Rolls-Royce plans to commission its first SMR (in the UK) by 2029. And there are projects and proposals in other countries, including Russia, China and India. And big NPPs are still being built around the world. Not to mention the Big Dream – nuclear fusion.
According to the World Nuclear Association, there currently are 440 reactors operational in NPPs worldwide, generating 10% of global electricity. Globally, nuclear is the second biggest producer of low-carbon power. Some 50 reactors are currently under construction. Around the world, nuclear electricity generation has been rising since 2012. In 2017, NPPs produced 2 503 TWh of electricity; in 2018, this figure rose to 2 563 TWh. At the global level, nuclear is clearly not a dying industry.
Given the financial and economic state of South Africa, given the well-organised and vociferous (but quite possibly unrepresentative – a new survey is needed) antinuclear lobby in the country, I doubt that we will see a new large NPP constructed in South Africa for some time, if ever. I do, however, expect Koeberg to be run for as long as safely possible. Any new NPPs here are likely to be SMRs or even MNRs, but only after they are proven overseas. And so the country that was the world leader in SMR technologies looks doomed to be a mere follower, probably using someone else’s technology. A bitter thought indeed.