Interpreting government’s mixed messages on nuclear power

The plants still being built now are typically running well behind schedule and construction costs are much higher than initially projected.
South Africa can’t afford new nuclear infrastructure with state funds in these times of budget shortfalls and ballooning debt. GettyImages

On 14 June the South African Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy issued a controversial statement initiating a process that could lead to the construction of new nuclear power station. The timing of the release, on a Sunday evening with the country completely focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, suggested a secretive revival of the much maligned Zuma-era nuclear deal.

The statement accompanied an official request for information intending to let the ministry “gain insight into the cost of the programme, possible ownership structures, cost recovery, the end user cost and sustainability of the programme”. Interested parties are invited to submit non-binding proposals on how they might build, operate and finance nuclear facilities with a generating capacity of 2500 MW. This is slightly larger than Koeberg, South Africa’s only existing nuclear plant.

Nuclear energy has become a decreasingly popular mode of electricity generation, especially since the falling cost of wind and solar power allowed these technologies major inroads into energy markets. Last year the global completion rate of new nuclear plants dropped to four from about 30 per annum in the mid 1980’s.

The plants still being built now are typically running well behind schedule and construction costs are much higher than initially projected.

The trend away from nuclear is reflected in South Africa’s most recent Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity. This framework guides the government’s decision making in the power generation sector. No new nuclear plants are scheduled to become operational for the time period covered by this plan, 2019-2030.


But there’s a statement on new nuclear in the Integrated Resource plan that’s also central to the present controversy:

Commence preparations for a nuclear build programme to the extent of 2500 MW at a pace and scale that the country can afford.

This clause was presumably the subject of substantial debate and disagreement at the cabinet meeting that endorsed this plan. It replaced an earlier draft clause to “immediately commence the nuclear build programme”, without any consideration of affordability. We know about this earlier draft because it was published by mistake in the Government Gazette in the days that followed the cabinet meeting.

Linking a possible nuclear build to the condition of affordability is an old compromise designed to paper over deep cracks within the government and governing party between proponents and opponents of nuclear development.

But the problem remains that the position is widely open to interpretation and used to back diametrically opposed standpoints.

Economists argue that South Africa can’t afford new nuclear power stations for the foreseeable future. This is especially true in light of the post Covid-19 budget woes and massive cost overruns in recent mega-projects such as the Medupi and Kusile coal power stations. In response, nuclear proponents argue that a nuclear build would improve electricity security and boost infrastructure development.

The ambiguity of the government’s position is becoming a source of policy uncertainty. Concerns about reckless mega-project investments have also hastened credit rating downgrades.

What’s making things worse is that the ministry has been slow and obstructive in implementing a much shorter term aspect of the Integrated Resource Plan – the roll out of new renewable energy plants. This has exposed the government to accusations that it can’t be relied on to implement its own energy strategies.

The dragging of heels on renewable energy is in sharp contrast to the speed with which the government is moving with respect to nuclear. Especially because according to the Integrated Resource Plan, any new nuclear plants would only become operational after 2030.

Trying to make sense of the mixed messages

The government’s seeming embracing of new nuclear may be interpreted in several ways:

I’m deliberately not considering the popular perception that nuclear may be supported due to better opportunities for personal gain through tenders.

  • The state believes that new nuclear developments are an optimal and cost-effective solution to stabilise the electricity supply crisis.
  • It recognises that nuclear is too expensive, but feels there are political reasons to pursue this technology. This would offer an opportunity to mend relations with Russia, which were effectively promised a nuclear construction deal during the tenure of former President Jacob Zuma. This plan was scuppered after it was associated with the State Capture scandal.
  • The government sees a Request for Information as an opportunity to pin down the much argued cost of nuclear, and thereby prove that the technology is unaffordable.

If the last point is the motivation then this is unlikely to work. No bidder would submit a pricing structure or financing options under the request for information that would appear unaffordable for the country. The true projected costs would only be disclosed once the country commits to a nuclear build and invites binding bids. Even then further cost escalation is likely.

There’s also speculation that one of the options that may feature in a request for information is the so-called Small Modular Reactor. This is a new-technology mini nuclear plant championed by individuals such as Bill Gates. The technology is however not yet commercially available, and is still expected to be uncompetitive compared to renewables.

Not a time to talk about big nuclear

The policy uncertainty and mixed messaging relating to South Africa’s position on nuclear will harm South Africa’s post Covid-19 economic recovery. There’s no way that a nuclear build can be pulled off with state funds in these times of budget shortfalls and ballooning debt.

An alternative option is a nuclear build that’s in part financed by a foreign developer. But this entails incurring an additional national debt that would eventually have to be repaid with interest, or higher electricity rates.The Conversation

Hartmut Winkler is professor of Physics, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


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Nuclear isn’t necessary. Yes it has no carbon emissions.

The case where Germany has experienced more than 50% renewable production during covid has shown the world that the grid can remain stable with renewable plus flexible supply e.g. batteries/gas/pumped storage

So technically renewable is a great option

Financially it really is drastically dropping in price.

Politically- surely to goodness backing a local industry that can create thousands of jobs and drop the price of electricity is better optics than , oh dear the Russians dont like us?

Germany has the world’s most expensive electricity. And you still need base load when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

The author is no-doubt a very capable person in his field of study. How that qualifies him to read the minds of our crooked politicians I don’t know.
The decisions these mafia bosses make should be viewed through the lens of self-enrichment.

What I find amusing is that no professor of a left wing institution such as a university will ever come out in favour of anything but solar and wind. If such a person endorsed nuclear or coal they would find themselves out on the street before you could say “just fission”. Such is the stranglehold the left have over society.

What is never mentioned, dare I say the elephant in the room, is not the cost of wind and solar but the complete lack of continuity of these as a power source. A 1GW wind system may produce 500MW for a week on end then 50MW for two weeks. Solar works in the day, not so much at night or during rainy weather. To integrate intermittent power, leads to an unstable grid and the requirement for a backup. It’s like having a car that only runs three days a week, thus requiring a second car. Doubling up requires double capital expenditure which in turn requires increased power costs to recoup the capital cost. Guess who pays for this though extra taxes or higher power bills?

1.Judge Judy
2.The Man on the Moon
3.The tooth fairy
4.The consumer

Green power is actually more Grey Coal than than what most people think it is.

Composition of a solar panel you need:
aluminum, cadmium, copper, gallium, indium, iron, lead, nickel, silica, silver, tellurium, tin and zinc.

Then to make a lithium ion battery you need:
aluminium, cobalt, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel and graphite.

Environmentalists also tend to forget the land which needs to be used for these panels and after 20 years who will clean the debris.

In electricity supply there are two very basic requirements, i.e availability and reliability. In layman terms it can be explained as follows:
Availability: You have an employee who must attend work for 8 hours per day. If he is there for 8 hours a day, his availability is 100%.
Reliability: If your employee does what you expect him to do for the full 8 hours, his reliability is 100%.
In electricity supply we expect both availability and reliability to be between 99 and 100%.
Available renewable energy technology does not comply with any these requirements. A 100 MW solar farm can, in perfect conditions, deliver say 90 MW for 8 hours a day. Availability and reliability – 33%. If the plant is equipped with storage capacity to get to 100% availability and reliability, the 100 MW capacity is cut down to about 30 MW over a 24 hour cycle. The catch is, by the time the storage capacity is installed, the cost of that electricity will be way above the cost of nuclear. If you then bring the unreliable sunshine (cloudy) into the picture, you end up with an expensive and not so reliable supply.
I do believe that renewable is the way to go and it should become a very important part of our energy mix, but people who do not understand the concepts of availability and reliability are ignoring the importance of a base load source and therefore attack coal and nuclear out of sheer ignorance. We will still need them for a very long time and therefore investment in new coal and nuclear is as important as investment in renewable.

Obviously, we still need coal for baseload power. For a while. But as renewable power costs decrease by leaps and bounds, it is the way the world is headed. For South Africa to even contemplate nuclear now is just…stupid. Nuclear would take at least 10 or more years to provide additional power for SA. No nuclear plant has EVER been completed on time and without massive cost overruns. A nuclear deal – especially with Russia – smacks of huge potential for ANC corruption. Renewable power costs have declined by 80% over the last 2 decades, and the supply of massive battery storage capacity is right now rapidly on the increase, with factories all over the world coming into large-scale production. We have millions of hectares of land unsuitable for agriculture, 2500 hours of sunshine a year (compared to Europe’s 1000) and constant wind power thanks to 3000 kms of coastline. Put all these together – sunshine, land, wind and ever-decreasing costs of renewables and storage capacity – and the answer is clear. We do not need nuclear.

Nuclear is still the best way to generate electricity.But setting up such a project massive.

The South African construction industry is a shadow of it’s former glory when Koeberg was built. It hardly has the capacity and skills to maintain the existing – there is sadly no way it can build a new 2.5GW. Trust me, I am construction expert and have worked on numerous mega projects and Koeberg itself. And no foreign country would dare embark on helping out given the mess of current government.
End of story. The thought of it is a conduit to more corruption in wasted feasibility fees.

End of comments.





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