Opinion: South Africa Should Build Hybrid Nuclear-Desalination Plants, Transform Desert To Farms

Opinion: South Africa Should Build Hybrid Nuclear-Desalination Plants, Transform Desert To Farms

South Africa in 2015 recorded its lowest annual rainfall since record keeping began in 1904, and in April 2016, agreed to partner with Iran to develop desalination plants to boost water supplies.

Desalination plants will be built along all coastal communities, Reuters reported in May.

South Africa’s largest desalination plant is in Mossel Bay in the Western Cape where it helps supply water to state oil company PetroSA’s gas-to-fuel refinery, according to Infrastructure News.

A desalination plant is under construction in Lamberts Bay, where it’s expected to contribute to socioeconomic development along the West Coast. Construction is 85 percent complete.

Desalination is most widely used in arid regions. More than half the world’s desalination capacity is located in North Africa and the Middle East, according to Climate Techwiki.

From Engineering News. Story by Tom Blees, a U.S. advanced energy systems consultant and author of “Prescription for the Planet – The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises.”

There are plans to build 10 new nuclear power plants in South Africa with nearly 10 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity.

Alarmists cry that this will cost 1-trillion rand, a number pulled out of thin air by antinuclear campaigners. In fact, the cost (based on nuclear builds happening in Korea, China, and elsewhere) should be less than half that. And with several countries vying for that business, South Africa is in a good position to get a good deal.

All the offers presented to South Africa have been to build light-water reactors, the kind used almost exclusively around the world today. But if one talks to nuclear scientists, most of them will tell you that light-water reactors will be phased out in the near future in favor of reactor designs that operate at or near atmospheric pressure – the two most likely being sodium-cooled fast reactors or molten salt reactors.

Both of these will be able to be mass produced and deployed quickly, for they avoid the expensive pressure vessels and other pressurized components inherent in light-water reactor design. The atmospheric pressure operation also imparts a considerable safety factor that alone would be a compelling reason to choose a light-water reactor alternative.

But there is another characteristic of sodium-cooled or molten salt reactors that can be invaluable to a country like South Africa that has a lot of semi-arid land going unused for lack of water.

Both those types of reactors operate at considerably higher temperatures than molten salt reactors. That makes them inherently more efficient at producing electricity.
However, there is another advantage that those high temperatures confer. The heat can be used to desalinate seawater.

Back in 1973, the then USSR built a fast reactor, the BN-350, in what is now Kazakhstan. It was a hybrid power plant that produced electricity but also desalinated water to provide fresh water for domestic and agricultural use. To date, this is the only such hybrid nuclear power plant ever deployed. With advances in desalination technology over 40 years later, similar hybrid power-water plants using the larger BN designs are an attractive prospect.

There’s a potential bonanza for South Africa. If those 10 new nuclear power plants were built as hybrid electricity-desalination plants, the amount of fresh water produced from seawater would provide such vast quantities of water that what is now unused semiarid land could be turned into a garden, creating an agricultural industry worth hundreds of billions of rand a year. This has been demonstrated in the semiarid Central Valley of California (with snowmelt rather than desalination), which now produces over half the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the U.S. on land that was previously unusable.

A burgeoning agriculture industry resulting from such a project in South Africa would also create countless jobs for unskilled workers, creating a path for currently unemployed South Africans to lift themselves out of poverty.

The advantages of such a path are so transformative as to be considered a national imperative. Rather than throwing vast amounts of money away building 22 gigawatts of wind and solar facilities, choose instead to build the 10 gigawatts of nuclear capacity with the clear stipulation that the power plants will be hybrid plants. The money saved can be put to much better use building the agricultural infrastructure that will raise the standard of living of the entire country.

Read more at Engineering News.