LET me say from the outset that while I marvel at and support the impressive developments in the renewable energy technology over the past few years, I am by no means against nuclear energy. The reasons for my stance, in great part, is that having listened to speeches by many people who form part of what I call the anti-nuclear brigade, a lot of the arguments I’ve heard from them tend to rely more on emotional appeal against nuclear technology than on scientific facts.
The silence on the part of the broader nuclear fraternity has not helped its cause, as the space that they could have used to explain this complex technology to the man on the street, using lay man’s language, is now largely occupied by unsympathetic voices.
I’ve heard people make reference to safety concerns ad nauseam, stating fear of what might happen after 100 years of underground nuclear waste storage in concrete slabs, and making reference to a number of historic nuclear incidents. Indeed, there have been a handful of such incidents since the 1950s, starting with Windscale (UK, 1957), Three Miles Island (USA, 1979), Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986), Tokai Mura (Japan, 1997 and 1999) and, more recently, Fukushima Daiichi (Japan, 2011), but a closer look at the detail of each one of them does not always justify the blind anti-nuclear rhetoric.
The Chernobyl nuclear plants were built on old soviet technology which is no longer in use. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants found themselves in the way of sweeping waters that began as a Tsunami, miles away, and went about parts of Japan destroying property and killing livestock and people. The nuclear plants were not the originators of what happened in Fukushima. One never hears people being discouraged from going on cruises on the basis of the Titanic sinking in 1912.
Here in South Africa, the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant was commissioned in the mid-80s and has operated without loss to human life ever since. More people die in airplane and motor accidents every year than from nuclear accidents.
Enter the Renewable Energy
The past 5 years or so have seen an impressive development of the renewable energy sector in South Africa and elsewhere. The South African government has played its part in facilitating the entry of Independent Power Producers (IPP) into the market as co-generators of electricity. Earlier this year, Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson had delegates at the South African International Renewable Energy Conference (SAIREC2015) eating out of her hands when she boasted about South Africa’s plans to expand its Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) over the next few years, reminding them that the government had already paid more than R9.2bn to IPPs.
In the light of this, it’s hard to find fault with South Africa’s level of investment in this sector to date, which is now said to contribute some 2 000MW of the committed 6 000MW to the national grid. But, and this is where the problem lies, this contribution falls far short of the average 35 000MW required to keep the lights on after sunset, daily.
The remaining challenge is for the IPP community to come up with technology that will enable it to store sufficient electricity from renewables that can feed the grid even when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. The current arrangement, with which Eskom is no longer happy, is unsustainable, as it forces the power utility to purchase renewable energy during the day when it doesn’t need it.
To remedy the situation, Eskom has indicated that it would not add to the existing 20 year power purchase agreements in their current form. Understandably, this declaration has set panic within the IPP community, whose national chairperson, Sisa Njikelana, told News Leader that “any damage that such action may have on investor confidence will exacerbate the current precarious investor environment and most probably take time to be remedied too”. Is this blackmail, an appeal to emotions, or a reasonable warning?
The politics behind it all
The problem with any discussion of nuclear energy is that it tends to bring up raw emotions in people. This is not helped by the fact that our government’s management of state owned entities, big tenders, and public funds in general has contributed to it being discredited in the eyes of many.
One of the first questions that bother many observers of the nuclear new build procurement process has to do with costs. Despite many calls, the government has not been forthcoming with the financial modeling of the process and current decisions to go ahead with building 9.6GW of additional nuclear energy plants are based on the outdated 2010-2013 IRP (Integrated Resources Plan). The IRP is meant to serve as the country’s blue print for energy planning and sourcing and has to be updated every three years.
The 2013 update which, given lower than projected economic growth and energy demand, proposed a smaller slice for nuclear energy, was rejected by the government. The 2016 upgrade, which had been expected to be released earlier this year, has now been pushed to November or early next year. Ideally, and some would say “in terms of the correct process”, the final procurement decisions should be informed by the latest version of the IRP, not the old one. Anything else is tantamount to making huge investment on a thumb suck.
But those who argue that instead of an investment in nuclear power, South Africa should look at a combination of renewables and gas imported from Mozambique seem to forget that electricity is a strategic resource. Placing the country’s electricity dependence in the hands of an unpredictable neighbouring state might not be politically wise in the long term.
Brian Molefe, who is known to master the art of playing politics, came in and introduced stringent demand management processes on big industry, especially the mines. He is seen as a hero by a public which is only too happy not have the lights in homes and small businesses going off because of regular load shedding. But even he knows that something has to be done to ensure a smooth replacement of our aging coal power plants by cleaner energy.
However, Molefe is not doing himself any favours by regularly going out of his way to defend the indefensible Guptas; and recent reports of the ongoing awarding of multi-million rand loans and tenders to this family will not help him when he tries to make a case for what could otherwise be reasonable management decisions. His motives will always be put into question because he is seen to represent a President and a government that no longer enjoy automatic public trust. I wish him luck.