Koeberg nuclear power station at sunset. Picture: SUPPLIED
Koeberg nuclear power station at sunset. Picture: SUPPLIED

Former president Jacob Zuma’s recent comments that the nuclear build programme would have saved us from the current energy crisis need to be set in context.

He was not referring to the 2015 proposed new nuclear build that came to an abrupt halt once he lost power, but the “Nuclear One” procurement programme from 2007/2008, where Westinghouse (US/Japan) and Areva (France) entered a competitive tendering process for 10 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power.

Had this gone ahead, it is likely that SA would indeed have avoided today’s crisis. It is an abject reminder of the need for long-term forward planning.

Both nuclear vendors had the full support of SA’s local industry, which submitted and negotiated Eskom-compliant proposals. SA suppliers to the nuclear industry were operating at their peak and able to provide optimal support to the nuclear build programme. At an international benchmarked price of $5m per megawatt and local content of 40% for the first 10GW, the domestic spend would have been about R300bn over 15-20 years.

Had the project been awarded in 2008, local industry would have aligned and qualified itself with international partners for the nuclear programme’s requirements during the three-year site and technology licensing process.  Given the lessons learned from the first of a kind third-generation nuclear power plants being built internationally, it is probable that the nuclear programme would have delivered its first power by 2018.

A brown-fields expansion of Koeberg’s established facilities and know-how would have helped lower the costs and construction lead times. Had the 2007/2008 programme gone ahead, over 3GW of reliable, affordable and clean energy could have been synchronised to the grid by now and would be making a significant contribution to alleviating today’s energy crisis.

The requests for information that would have been submitted by the five nuclear vendor countries in 2016 would have shown the real costs, construction schedules and how it would have been funded. The R1-trillion price tag would have been shown for the propaganda it was. Facts would be in the open.

Because nuclear power plants would have been built in the southern coastal regions, transmission losses would have significantly reduced while providing the drought-stricken Cape with effective water desalination and thus averting the water crisis. Also, nuclear’s high local content, compared with other imported energy sources, would have contributed to significant job creation.

Today, the decommissioning of 12.5GW of coal power stations without anything planned to replace them means another energy crisis is on the 10-year horizon, which the balance of the 2008 10GW nuclear programme would have helped prevent. In total, the nuclear programme could have saved SA from four energy crises while contributing to growth and jobs. SA would be in a much better situation.

The current draft Integrate Resource Plan 2018, which envisages replacing our existing baseload with renewables or cleaner coal technologies, large combined cycle gas turbines and nuclear, is not an overnight solution.

The necessary long-term vision seems to be missing from SA’s energy planners. There is no quick fix, no silver bullet in energy planning. Nuclear is a forward thinking energy solution that has long-term benefits once the capital costs have been amortised.

The case in point is Koeberg, still producing the cheapest, cleanest and most reliable power on the continent, as it has for over 20 years and will do for the next 30 to 40 years. Critically, it is completely independent of Cape Town’s precious water supplies. The waste is of such low volume that it can be safely managed over the long term.   

SA is one of the few African countries that can enjoy the safety and economies of scale from third-generation nuclear power plants and the distributed benefits of small modular reactors without being connected to a regional power pool. Gas turbines and small modular reactors are also an optimum replacement for our old decommissioned coal power plants. Jobs would be available for the skilled workforce already concentrated around these sites.

Real world global experience shows that the most valuable energy systems are those that balance energy security, access to affordable energy and environmental sustainability. This requires a balanced integration of thermal (coal and gas), renewables and hydro, and nuclear energy sources. Introducing regional power pools and distributed grids unlocks the abundance of indigenous natural resources in each country.

Africa need not have an energy crisis. Let us stop gambling with the continent’s future and grow emerging economies with safe, affordable reliable power delivered via a balanced energy mix.

• Muller, a power general process engineer with experience in thermal, renewable and nuclear projects, is MD of consultancy NuEnergy Developments.