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A case for nuclear

Nuclear physicist shares his views.

South Africa is embarking on a major project to build nuclear power plants. This is the correct path to follow and is a well thought out, carefully-crafted project plan.

Unfortunately ‘nuclear power’ creates huge emotion in people. There is a rather, can I say it, traditional anti-nuclear lobby which came about at the time of the rapid building of nuclear weapons. I feel that this original anti-nuclear sentiment from weapons has continued on to nuclear power plants.

There is no connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, except for the word ‘nuclear’. There is no connection between hot curry and hot cars either.

Nuclear weapons are designed to explode; to do that a country has to be able to enrich uranium beyond the 90% mark. It is this high level uranium enrichment potential which is the major worry that much of the world has with the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea.

Power reactors run on enrichment figures of 5% to 10% – such uranium cannot be used for weapons. Nuclear reactors cannot explode like nuclear bombs. It is possible to have fires or floods in nuclear plants, like what happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima and, like in any industrial plant, fire and water can really mess up one’s day.

Both those reactors were old and obsolete by modern standards. The reactors of today are known as Generation Three (Gen III) and Generation Three-Plus (Gen III+).

These new rector designs have been fundamentally altered to use the natural laws of physics as safety factors.

Fukushima had a waste fuel storage pond above ground. So, when it cracked due to the earthquake, the water ran out and the waste fuel overheated because the water had been a coolant. Gen III passive safety reactors are designed, for example, with tanks of water above them, so ‘if the lights go out’, the water will naturally fall down onto the reactor for long enough to provide emergency cooling.

Modern reactors have had extra features added, but they have also had other features simplified and ‘parts have been taken out’ to lessen complexity and so lead to a generally safer design.

Cost and construction

I am a nuclear physicist, not a finance expert, so I don’t claim to be an authority on international finance. However so many simplistic things are stated in the media, and claimed by anti-nuclear activists concerning nuclear costs that some sense needs to prevail.

South Africa has sensibly decided on a fleet approach to nuclear power. ‘Fleet’ means having a mentality now of multiple construction and one skilled labour team moving from one site to the next, to provide continuity and to learn and improve on-the-job.

This means that now the country is planning for an additional 9 600 MW of nuclear power, which translates to three nuclear power stations, each of which will have two or three nuclear reactors, depending on which type we decide to construct. Personally, I don’t think 9 600 MW is enough, we should have 12 500 MW on the table now, but it is easy to increase in the future if we have a fleet mentality to start with.

Henry Ford discovered that having a motor car production line produced cars more cheaply than building one car at a time.

My next point: South Africa is not ‘buying’ nuclear power plants from anybody.

Construction teams, composed mostly of South Africans, will build the nuclear power stations.

The construction will take place in collaboration with foreign companies, and we will build the nuclear power stations to some plan, provided by another country.

South Africa currently does this with motor cars. South Africans build and export German, Japanese, and American cars all over the world. They are built to German, Japanese, and American plans but the welding, bolting, painting and assembly is done by South Africans. Yes, there are foreign company engineers and representatives coming and going all the time, but they don’t ‘make the cars’.

The same will happen with nuclear power stations.

South Africa is not ‘buying’ a nuclear power station by writing out one cheque and sending it to a foreign country, which will then arrive carrying ‘one nuclear power station in a box’ and deliver it.

So stop talking of the ‘cost of R1 trillion and do we have the money?’ Firstly, the R1 trillion, which I have seen escalated in some media to R1.4 trillion ‘because the rand has gone down against the US dollar’ is not the figure calculated by the nuclear technology folks. We talk of a number in the ballpark of R650 billion, but we have to see what proposals foreign companies and South African finance experts put on the table.

That is part of the bidding process; the SA government is not being secretive by not mentioning its own figure. It is doing what any sensible businessperson would do: keeping its cards to its chest while it sees what the other players bid.


Another potential spinoff from a fleet approach is the potential for localisation. A company is not going to gear-up and tool-up to produce specialist items for one nuclear plant.

But if the target is a carrot: a fleet of reactors, or even hundreds, then that is a different matter. Companies will invest the time and expense to train staff and install the specialist gear required. For an area such as the Eastern Cape, the job creation potential is massive.

“Hundreds of reactors” you say. Yes, hundreds. The world market currently has some 500 reactors. These consist of operating reactors and reactors under construction. If some local company builds eg a range of a few nuclear-compliant valves, then they can potentially supply for maintenance and new reactor construction to the world. Already the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) is exporting nuclear-grade fabricated components to Korea for nuclear fuel assemblies. The target of nuclear fabrication export is not a dream – it’s started. So let’s build on this opportunity.

The localisation target mentioned in public is 50%. I support 50% but some critics have said “10% if you are lucky”. Meantime the Russian nuclear company Rosatom has said: “why not aim for 60%?” So 50% is totally reasonable.

There is no technical reason why this cannot be achieved. Good project management will be the determining factor.

When I was in Moscow I spoke to the head of Rosatom and he sees nuclear power as a world effort, something like a big club. That’s my view too. A few months ago I was invited to be guest speaker at a national nuclear event in Hanoi in Vietnam. The Vietnamese officials told me they looked to South Africa for inspiration, because we clearly know what we are doing and we understand their conditions.

They said most first world countries have no concept of pulling heavy loads through a hundred kilometres of jungle, on a dirt road. South Africans know all about those sorts of conditions. The head of nuclear from Indonesia was also in Hanoi and he agreed. He told me his country is a collection of islands – they can’t run cables in the air from island to island. He said South Africans however, are used to those sorts of snags.

I have also received invitations to speak in Bolivia and Turkey [and I was told] South African actions in nuclear power were an inspiration to them.


The scientific investigation team which carried out the environmental impact assessment (EIA) on potential sites, recommended that a site near Oyster Bay, (near Jeffrey’s Bay), be the site for the first new nuclear power station.

I have toured all over the 4 000 ha site and it is fantastic. A Chinese delegation who visited there recently reported to me that it is one of the best sites they have seen in the world.

Site preparation can start virtually immediately – the moment the Minister of Environmental Affairs puts her signature on the final EIA document.

The budget for the site preparation alone is some tens of billions of rands.

The term ‘site preparation’ refers to a list of actions such as: expanding/reinforcing harbour facilities to bring large tonnage items ashore; building/widening roads to carry these loads; building/strengthening bridges; new roads to the site; digging down to bedrock to lay deep foundations; running water supply to the site; electrical supply; housing for workers and much more.

Essentially all of this will be done by South Africans. These individuals and their companies will pay tax and they will buy pipes, cables etc from other companies across the country, which will pay tax. Money will flow to the fiscus immediately.

It is not the case that R1 trillion, paid in US dollars, is going out of the country.

Pride in performance

When construction on the actual reactor buildings starts, it will be South Africans pouring the concrete and laying the cables, connecting the water pipes. When construction arrives at the more intricate stage of the installation of cooling pumps, pipework, valves and many other assemblies such as electrical control circuits etc, then we will start to find out if companies prepared themselves to supply the required nuclear-grade pumps, valves and such like.

We will need highly-skilled coded welders and universities to be able to use x-rays to look inside a weld to see if the atoms landed up in the correct places, because that is what nuclear-grade welding means. We will need to build huge capacity in the ranks of skilled artisans. We are talking of dedicated people who really take a pride in their work.

Obviously the selected foreign companies will be involved. They will have engineers and planners on site, working side by side with South Africans. They will also have experts visiting facilities all over the country, to check on components and assemblies being manufactured or tested.

Certain components and assemblies will not be made in South Africa and will enter by sea or air, depending on their size and value. South African experts will go overseas to check on the fabrication there.

Meantime, throughout this whole process the South African National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) will check that everything is done according to the NNR licensing laws and protocols. The NNR monitors the health and safety of the South African public by making sure that processes and parts conform to the standards as laid down by the NNR, which in turn collaborates with international bodies in mandating such specs and processes.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist, and CEO of Nuclear Africa and a member of the Ministerial Advisory Council on Energy.


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With reference to recent events in Germany who are decommissioning their atomic power plants. Questions arise such as what is the commercial live of proposed RSA plants, storage of atomic radioactive waste, at end of plant live, who is responsible for decommissioning AND who is paying for all of this?

Germany is decommissioning their nuclear power stations because of the incredibly strong green lobby not for economic reasons. Thanks to them Germany has one of the highest priced electricity in the EU. On he other hand France gets most of their electricity from nuclear power and their electricity price is about half of the German prices.

Dear Mr Hun, the reason that France has cheap nuclear energy is because the French nuclear providers have not included the cost of decommissioning their plants, as well as the cost of safely storing nuclear waste for approx. 24,000 years in their cost of electricity supply. This considerable cost will no doubt have to be borne by the French taxpayers in future.
If you are familiar with the extreme difficulty that providers are already having with storing existing nuclear waste for only 50 years you will appreciate the astronomical cost that will be incurred for the remaining 23,950 years.

Thank you Dr Kemm
1. We don’t need the extra elec right now and have other more important places to put our hard earned money (and Nkandla is not one of them)
2. Government is untrustworthy
3. Fukushima and Chernobyl – “really mess up one’s day” – I would suggest that is a bit of an understatement
4. They said the Titanic was unsinkable

Sorry Dr Kemm, your expertise is not needed at this time. I suggest you move to Vietnam, Bolivia or Turkey

We do need more electricity to expand the economy. Mines which would like to expand their operation can not do it because Eskom can not guarantee electricity supply.
Nobody died at Fukushima from radiation, on the other hand 10000 were killed by the tsunami. Obviously we should prohibit tsunamis instead of nuclear power 🙂
Chernobyl was a very bad communist design, if it was constructed like Koeberg the fallout would have been eliminated. The total number of death attributed to Chernobyl is less than 100, far more people die every year in coal mining accidents and even accidents caused by renewable generators. Just search for accidents and wind generators and you will be surprised.

I’m neither a financier nor a physicist, but as an engineer I can recognise folly when I see it. Not only is it arguable as to whether SA needs atomic power, but also whether it needs any kind of additional power over and above that needed merely to replace older power stations as they become obsolete. What, for instance, would Zimbabwe have done with atomic power stations? Or Nigeria? Nuclear power is indispensable for countries that have a long-term industrial future and a growth trajectory: South Africa has neither. And don’t get me started on how long it would take South Africa’s fabled wekkas to build a nuclear power station. Never mind educate and train them…

If you are not punting your own field, you are contributing to your own professional demise.

Now let’s hear from someone in the sustainable energy field.

What sustainable energy has to say has been said ad nauseum. Presume those supporters were listening?

Nothing concrete, mostly waffle with the words “expected”, “hopefull” and “will” used widely. Maybe sustainable will one day happen without conventional hydrocarbon and nuclear backup. Till then “maybe” we will be all happy with running out of electricity?

So basically honest is what you are saying, instead of the pro nuke argument of gung ho, stormin norman, no way, not on your life…..oops sorry just stuffed up the next 300 generations and let’s get the f outta here!

braaitong…………… your comment: I rest my case

The only reason to oppose nuclear power in SA is the danger of cost escalation and the kickbacks expected by the ANC. Unfortunately as Medupi has shown the same applies to traditional power stations too. So the only decision is, should the kickbacks be paid by Hitachi or Rosatom.

A concern is that even if locals build 50%, one still needs to finance the whole amount and service that debt. This is recovered from the cost of the electricity.

So this is not only a technical matter (as a scientist myself, I am not too concerned about the technical/safety matters) but an economic and management one. If the cost of electricity is too high people will generate their own using solar, wind etc. The cost of renewables is dropping. What will it be relative to nuclear in 10 years time? Renewables have some level of variation in supply although this variation can be mitigated to some extent. So how much base load do we need? Is 9600 MW not too much. It depends on the relative final cost per kW. I cannot answer these questions, but my argument is that this article focusses on the technical whereas the answer on how much nuclear energy to go for is not only technical.

To quote from the article “There is no technical reason why this cannot be achieved. Good project management will be the determining factor.” Yes, agreed. But add to the management factor, the economic factor. Can we afford another Medupi-style project from management or economics perspective? Who will make sure that this does not happen? Once we are committed, we are committed.

“The cost of renewables is dropping. What will it be relative to nuclear in 10 years time?”

Sorry but this comment is typical of sustainable supporters . All pure guesswork and hope and little action unless supported by massive subsidies.

Obviously the cANCer corruption is a huge problem in SA. However doing nothing because of this is highly irresponsible. There is no perfect time to do things but one has to to the best that one can. Finance is a huge problem as it always is. The solution to that is to destroy cANCer or get it to cut guvmint expenditure and change it’s socialistic african policies. Conflating this with the need to have viable power solutions is a deliberate muddying of the waters.

Dr Kemm

An informative and well written article, of which I agree with most of it, although I do believe there will be massive disruptions and huge hikes in costs from one perspective which is the inherent militant work force that RSA has firmly entrenched and encouraged by the unions – Medupi is a shining example. However, this is to be expected. One major issue which has affected RSA to an ever increasing and it would appear an accelerating degree is the amount of corruption on the tendering process for the 50-60% local content, add this to the labour issues which are guaranteed and we will not have an easy time in rolling out this Nuclear project, neither on time or anywhere near budget. The remaining factor which will probably be far more serious than these other 2 combined, is the sub-Saharan Africa factor. I have spent 45 years living for extended periods counted in years not months, in most countries, which include Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda etc. When autonomy and release from the preceeding powers that governed those various countries was no longer, there was naturally elation and much prmise of what the future would hold, the power which initially takes over, rarely lasts beyond 15-25 years. You have initially the establishment of a powerful elite inner circle that is accepted and tolerated in the beginning, but when those around realize that this prosperity is limited to the privileged circle only and it is not being shared, resentment starts as does unrest and the demand for changes … sound familiar? This rapidly relatively speaking degenerates into massive internal power struggles, civil unrest, even civil war. Just take a look at our ever more violent strikes, look now at the students, the massive discontent with the ruling party – driving droves of people into the arms of the EFF and DA, this cannot end well. How can we hope to complete projects the size of this nuclear project anywhere near on time, or near initial budget estimates in a country at war, maybe multiple wars on many fronts and huge civil unrest. Call it the Zimbabwe factor if you will, but from my own experiences and what I see happening everyday, it is exactly where we are headed, barring a dramatic change of course at the very top – not for the worst aka Van Rooyen for a day style, but the opposite. Get rid of Rob Davies a true communist at heart and constantly putting more and more red tape in the way of getting any real SMEs up and running, change some of our draconian labour laws, created and crafted Mboweni which he even agrees now are totally outrageous – we might build 60 or even 70% of the components here but we will need to borrow to do that – in the environment I describe above, not to far fetched I think, try doing that with an S&P rating 3 levels below junk, with a ZAR/$ of 25+ and uncontrollable civil unrest. Quadruple the budget and triple the time to completion …. thanks for the article.

Seems to me the wisest course of action would be to hire the ship-based nuclear generators (which Russia is expert at).

These could be placed in a harbour nearest where they are needed. Sent back easily to Russia for refueling or maintenance,, and would bypass the whole issue of decommissioning a fixed nuclear structure on SA soil once its time has run out.

And it would also be a good hedge against future developments in alternative energy sources.

Seems like a no-brainer.

Yes, but the very fact that this may be a viable solution, or at least should be seriously considered, means that the ANC will do something else. They seem to be incapable of doing anything right!

5 words from this very article that frighten:nuclear bombs, Chernobyl, Fukushima, fire.Why take a chance with our lives, SA government?

I would not trust any of them to operate a garden shovel correctly. They cant maintain a coal fired power station and now you want to trust them with Nuclear energy ? When Nuclear power plants blow up due to poor maintenance they tend to create huge problems.

The price of other energy options (renewables, hydro, gas and battery technology) are falling rapidly. The price of solar power and wind power has more than halved in price over the last 5 years. Battery technology is one of the few technologies (the computer chip being another) that is making step changes in cost and performance. Why would any country commit to a 50 year contract and forego the benefits of the above technologies for the next 50 years. Adding to the stupidity is the fact that our nuclear friends cannot guarantee the price or the schedule and expect the SA people to carry the can.

End of comments.





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