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.