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Firing up the debate over nuclear

‘Nuclear power would be a catastrophe’ says Free Market Foundation.

Nuclear energy as a part solution to South Africa’s energy crisis is firmly back on the agenda, judging by the president’s recent State of the Nation Address. But while some see it as a panacea to the country’s energy shortage, the cost of building a nuclear power station and the time it will take to build it has others reeling.

Executive director of the Free Market Foundation, Leon Louw believes nuclear power would be a ‘catastrophe’.

“The government has shown conclusively that it is unable to manage electricity. It is entirely in the wrong hands. Nuclear will make the disasters of Medupi and Kusile seem small,” he told Moneyweb.

In his address to Parliament earlier this month, President Jacob Zuma said South Africa’s energy sector needed a radical transformation. He added that work needed to be done on all forms of energy especially nuclear energy and shale gas with regards to funding, safety, exploitation and the local manufacture of components.

Zuma said nuclear had the possibility of generating well over 9000 MW.

Louw says he is not principally opposed to nuclear and sees it as a safe and reliable option. However, he’s very concerned about nuclear energy investment remaining in government hands, as it is so expensive. He’s cautioned that it could also be wide open to kickbacks.

The cost of investing in nuclear in South Africa has been estimated at around R1 trillion, although nuclear physicist and CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, Kelvin Kemm, says it could be closer to R500 billion.

“The only way we can have nuclear is to let private investors risk their own money for which we are not responsible. That’s happening worldwide. Pouring government money into it is irresponsible. Taxpayers will end up paying. We are sitting with a dinosaur model, what I’d call an ‘energy policy for neanderthals’,” said Louw.

Louw’s other concern is that nuclear will take far too long to build, as the country grapples with stifled economic growth flowing from an energy shortage. Louw estimates seven years, although Kemm says nuclear power stations are being built in Korea within five years.

Louw believes the government should rather invest in small power stations and gas turbines as a more immediate and cheaper way of dealing with the energy crisis.

“When you are dealing with a crisis, as we are, you need to build something quickly…small power stations and gas turbines. You don’t build Kusile, Medupi and nuclear. That is a perpetuation of the energy crisis and will guarantee that the economy will stagnate.”

Louw has estimated that the South Africa GDP is R366 million smaller than it would have been because of energy deficiency.

“We are losing about 40% of the budget every single year.”

The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation has thrown its weight behind the president’s latest comments, saying nuclear would revitalise the South African economy and be part of the broader industrialisation in South Africa.

Kemm says nuclear energy is the way to go in South Africa, as power stations such as Medupi and Kusile will simply not be able to meet the energy demands of the country.

“We undoubtedly need to go ahead with nuclear as fast as we possibly can,” he told Moneyweb.

He said no matter how high the price tag of building nuclear power stations, nuclear would be a far better choice in the long run than coal-fired power stations and other renewable energy options, such as wind and solar.

“It is a great opportunity and should be seen as that. The government has announced that it wants over 9 000 MW of nuclear power. That equates to three big power stations, each of them twice the size of Koeberg.”

The Koeberg power station, on the outskirts of Cape Town, currently supplies 5% of South Africa’s energy needs.

Kemm says the initial outlay may be expensive, but the payoff will be tremendous in the long run.

“Nuclear is cheaper over a lifetime than coal, solar or wind energy. The fuel volume is also incredibly small, compared to coal.

“If Koeberg were coal, it would take six train loads of coal a day to supply it. It takes one three-ton truck of fuel per year.”

On the renewable energy front, Kemm says wind turbines were designed for a 20-year cycle, compared to nuclear reactors, which were designed for 60 years. He also argues that nuclear is a constant source of energy, compared to wind and solar energy which are fickle and dependent on the elements.

Kemm says South Africa is far from alone in considering nuclear power as an option. He says 21 African countries had indicated to the International Atomic Energy Agency that they intended to go ahead with nuclear at some stage.

With a renewed emphasis on nuclear and a new minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, in the Energy hot seat, the debate over nuclear may be nothing less than fiery this year.

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