The South African nuclear energy industry is currently dormant, but has the potential to “kick back into life” with adequate long-term planning and preparation, says engineering consulting firm GIBB power and energy GM Paul Fitzsimons.
South Africa has one nuclear power station – State-owned utility Eskom’s Koeberg nuclear power station, near Cape Town – but it aspires to have several more built, he adds.
“Nuclear energy in South Africa is a potential industry, rather than an actual industry.” Fitzsimons says this is because the industry has not yet reached its full potential, owing to the significant capital expenditure associated with the nuclear fleet proposed in the Integrated Resource Plan.
He says that, once there is a more established set of plans by government, implementing them will require significant project and programme management.
“The major challenge will be to have a fully integrated programme to manage all the processes involved.”
Further, Fitzsimons explains that producing nuclear energy is a long-term industry that requires the development of the skills to service the industry. It is, therefore, difficult for companies in the private sector to plan accordingly, as no objectives have been clearly set out.
“You cannot develop skills just for development sake – there needs to be a clear end goal,” he adds.
The Pebble-Bed Project
Fitzsimons says the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor project was perhaps a missed opportunity in this regard.
The project was mothballed in 2010 because government decided, after careful deliberation, analysis and review, and mindful of the fiscal constraints, to discontinue investing in the project.
“One of the features of the project was the development of a pool of nuclear expertise in South Africa. When government ended the project, there were between 500 and 800 skilled engineers, scientists and technicians associated with the project.”
He adds that, since then, those engineers have dissipated and diversified into other fields.
According to information gateway South Africa.info, the project was technologically sound and potentially ideal for developing countries:
“South Africa was at the forefront of developing the new nuclear technology that, its proponents argued, was safe and clean, as it could be adopted in small-scale and modular fashion, ideally suited to the needs of developing countries.”
From 1999 to 2009, the South African government, Eskom, manufacturing company Westinghouse and the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa invested R9.244-billion in the project.
Fitzsimons says that, according to government, South Africa will have nuclear power in the future, but realising its potential is the challenge going forward.
“These are big, complex projects that have the potential to go over budget and behind schedule. Planning and integration are essential; while the core technology will almost certainly be imported, the extent to which this can be localised remains to be seen,” he concludes.