Eskom's Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Eskom's Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

In a virtual mineral resources & energy parliamentary committee meeting on May 7, portfolio minister Gwede Mantashe doubled down on the government’s commitment to a new nuclear energy programme and the Grand Inga hydroelectric project. According to the department’s annual performance plan, the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2019 “states that preparations must commence for the nuclear build programme, adding 2,500MW, as this is a no-regret option in the long term”. It goes on to say under the heading “Key Initiatives and Targets” that the department seeks to have “2,500MW nuclear energy procured by 2024”.

But what does the IRP 2019 — the government’s approved and gazetted road map for electricity generation — actually say about nuclear power? Strangely enough, this was exactly the issue that tripped the minister up when the IRP was first released. In the “incorrect” version that was first published, the IRP gave the following as its policy directive on nuclear: “Immediately commence the nuclear build programme to the extent of 2,500MW because it is a no-regret option in the long term and in case the Inga project does not materialise.”

This was almost immediately withdrawn and a new version gazetted, which stated the following policy directive: “Commence preparations for a nuclear build programme to the extent of 2,500MW at a pace and scale that the country can afford because it is a no-regret option in the long term.”

The key words in the “correct” version of the IRP are “commence preparations” and “at a pace and scale the country can afford”. Given the current economic, fiscal, social and medical crises in SA, it cannot be right that a nuclear new build, to be procured by 2024, is prioritised ahead of the societal and economic ills of our country. And, more specifically, the IRP does not call for the procurement of an additional 2,500MW of nuclear in the current IRP time frame. Instead, the only nuclear it envisages is 1,860MW arising from the Koeberg life extension process.

But the annual performance plan gets even more bizarre. It promotes the use of small modular reactors (SMRs) as the solution to SA’s nuclear requirements. That’s all well and good, and one we can get behind it as it permits the “pace and scale” approach to be implemented effectively. But in reality, SMRs are some way away from practical commercial viability.

While small reactors are nothing new, having been used on submarines and various warships for many years, the commercial application has lagged well behind. A number of countries are developing the technology, but no-one is rolling it out to any significant degree. The country that is furthest ahead in this regard is China, though several others have promising designs that are at various stages of development. None seems likely to be able to provide for an operational 2,500MW of SMRs in SA by 2030, even if the procurement were to be finalised by 2024.

The estimate of national expenditure for 2020/2021 (essentially the departmental budget) makes no provision for nuclear new build. It does not provide additional funding for the cash-strapped National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute, which is tasked with disposing of all radioactive material and cannot currently fulfil its mandate with regard to high-level radioactive waste. In fact, the high-level radioactive waste disposal site is only forecast to become operational in 2050, assuming the institute receives the necessary funding. What this means is that the waste being stockpiled at Koeberg cannot be disposed of effectively, nor would that of any future nuclear build in the short to medium term. It would sit on-site, in cooling pools.

The appointment of Dave Nicholls, the former chief nuclear officer at Eskom, as chair of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (Necsa), starts to make a lot of sense when viewed through the lens of an ANC government determined to pursue nuclear at any cost. While Nicholls brings an enormous amount of technical expertise, he is an unashamed proponent of big nuclear. Necsa is in dire financial difficulties and the Safari-1 reactor is at end of life. What Necsa needs now, more than ever, is a steady hand to guide it and a firm commitment to sound business and managerial principles. It needs to take hard decisions about its role; how many staff are needed to perform that role; and what it can do to return to profitability (or at the very least, viability).

SA cannot afford a nuclear build, especially not one that is based on ideology or nationalist pride. We need to be pragmatic about energy security and how that can be achieved in the shortest time frame at the least cost to the consumer.

• Mileham is DA shadow mineral resources & energy minister.