Focus: The Koeberg nuclear power station. The publication of the Integrated Resource Plan has left the door open on the debate whether SA needs new nuclear power stations. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Focus: The Koeberg nuclear power station. The publication of the Integrated Resource Plan has left the door open on the debate whether SA needs new nuclear power stations. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Whether SA needs multiple new nuclear reactors built by the Russians, the French or the Chinese or not is far from resolved yet. The publication of the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) on Tuesday should have put paid to the debate but it has left the door open on it.

It is now up to the public and stakeholders, who will weigh in on the public consultation process, as well as the Department of Energy and the Cabinet finally to determine the outcome.

The fight is still on.

While the plan should achieve several objectives — it plans for energy security, for the least cost of energy and for appropriate infrastructure — it has become singularly focused on the nuclear debate, because of the amount of political pressure there has been from the top office in the land to do a large nuclear deal. Technical planners and government officials have, for the past year, been working under duress to tinker with assumptions and costs to come up with a plan that provides the "right" outcomes.

And this is what they have done. The plan base case — which is usually the scenario most likely to hold sway — suggests that by 2037 SA will need 1,359 MW (about two new reactors) up and running.

On the surface it looks like a victory for the antinuclear club and the pro-renewable energy and gas lobbies. The previous plan, drafted in 2010, read that new nuclear would be required by 2022. The big differences between then and now is that renewable energy is now the cheapest form of energy, and that energy demand has not been growing.

But the fact that nuclear remains part of the long-term energy mix at all has been achieved by artificial means. One of the assumptions introduced into the model, says Department of Energy deputy director-general Omphi Aphane, is that it was necessary to constrain the growth of renewable energy. This, he explained at Tuesday’s briefing, was because of "grid constraints" and the difficulty of connecting renewable projects to the Eskom grid.

The co-ordination of grid development and investment in transmission with burgeoning renewable energy has in the past been somewhat haphazard. In future bid windows, which will select projects more strategically on the basis of the work between the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and Eskom, this should reduce.

Artificially constraining the growth of renewable energy has two effects: the base case is no longer the least-cost option, and it allows nuclear energy back into the model by 2037.

Constraining renewable energy is also what a panel of advisers appointed by Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson explicitly warned against. In its report to the minister on the plan a few weeks ago, the panel urged her to take the least-cost option. "A least-cost IRP model, free of any artificial constraints and before any policy adjustments, does not include any new nuclear power generators," said the panel.

University of Cape Town professor Anton Eberhard, a member of the panel, says solar photovoltaic energy, wind and flexible natural gas power generators are the least-cost option. Parallel models run by independent energy experts from the CSIR and UCT Energy Research Centre produce almost identical results, he says.

"It is clear from all the models, that when you run a least-cost base case without constraints, it doesn’t pick nuclear," he says.

Eskom’s head of generation, Matshela Koko, argued yesterday that there is a scenario in which nuclear energy would be required earlier — by 2025 — if a carbon emissions budget is imposed and the amount of solar and wind energy that can be built in any one year is constrained. Eberhard points out that the Department of Energy’s draft plan assumes very conservative prices for solar and wind energy. If the actual prices for the latest renewable energy independent power producer programme are taken, nuclear energy does not appear in any of these scenarios.

So there will be much to debate and argue about in the public process which — although planned over the holiday season — should nonetheless generate heated debate.

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