Is Africa’s Nuclear Power Renaissance Heading Into An Abyss?

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Written by D.A. Barber

South Africa, which currently relies on coal for more than 85 percent of its electricity, wants to wean itself off fossil fuels by using more nuclear power by 2030. Kenya, Nigeria, and other sub-Saharan countries have similar aspirations and are not far behind.

It’s a gutsy move for South Africa. Nuclear power plant construction has stagnated worldwide.

South Africa President Jacob Zuma said in his Feb. 13 State of the Nation address, “We expect to conclude the procurement of 9,600 megawatts of nuclear energy…Having evaluated the risks and opportunities, the final regulations will be released soon and will be followed by the processing and granting of licenses.” 

The $37-billion nuclear expansion is part of South Africa’s Integrated Resources Plan (IRP), a 20-year strategy to balance electricity supply and demand.

Nuclear power plant construction has stagnated worldwide, according to an October 2013 report from U.S.-based Worldwatch Institute. 

Nuclear is the only mainstream power source – including all of the renewables and all the fossil fuels – that is stagnant and has actually had negative growth, said Alexander Ochs, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Worldwatch Institute, in an AFKInsider interview.

The reason for that stagnation of nuclear? It’s not that countries are forbidden to build them — it’s simply economics, Ochs said. Utilities are unwilling to carry the high costs and the high risks. 

South Africa has the only nuclear power plant in Africa, operating two 900-megawatt nuclear reactors at Koeberg. It produces around 5 percent of its electricity, according to the South African Department of Energy. 

Construction of Koeberg began in 1976, with Unit 1 added to the grid in April 1984, followed by Unit 2 in July 1985. In August 2002, Greenpeace activists were arrested and fined after scaling the power plant wall to hang up an anti-nuclear protest banner. Since then, sporadic anti-nuclear campaigns against Koeberg have continued, led by Earthlife Africa, Koeberg Alert and Greenpeace Africa.

“There is a lot of a emotion around the whole nuclear issue,” said Cornelis van der Waal, head of energy at research firm Frost & Sullivan, in an AFKInsider interview. “I think if we look at it from an opportunity side, just the cold facts…it’s cleaner than coal, it has a very long life span, so you invest now and you have energy for the next 60 years.” 

New Nuclear Plants For South Africa 

South Africa is taking its nuclear power expansion seriously. A team from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency reviewed South Africa’s nuclear infrastructure in 2013 to help assess the status of its nuclear infrastructure. 

It is the agency’s role to help countries that choose to use nuclear power do so as safely and securely as possible, said Greg Webb, public information officer at the International Atomic Energy Agency, in an AFKInsider interview. “The decision whether to use nuclear power is a national decision, and the responsibility for nuclear safety and security rests with each country.” 

In the week following Japan’s 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear crisis, the South African government announced its intention to build 9.6 gigawatts of new nuclear power no later than 2030. But since then, some government agencies have questioned the program.

The Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa commissioned a review of the Integrated Resources Plan submitted Feb. 12 by Dawid E. Serfontein of the School of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at North West University, South Africa, that had some surprising conclusions. 

The review found that the nuclear decision could be delayed due to revised demand projections that suggest no new nuclear base-load capacity is needed until after 2025.

NIASA does not advise holding off nuclear expansion, said M.Z Knox Msebenzi, managing director of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa, in an AFKInsider interview. “Our position is clear. We would like the government to make the decision as quickly as possible,” Msebenzi said. 

 In fact Zuma insisted in his State of the Nation address a day after the review was completed that the government is moving ahead with the procurement of new nuclear energy.

“I’m just not sure why you would go down a nuclear route, which is extremely expensive,” Worldwatch Institute’s Ochs told AFKInsider. “You’re not building a nuclear power plant in a couple years. It’s a 15-year project. South Africa has a lot of coal left. I’m not a huge fan of getting the coal out of the ground and burning it, but it gives you time for a transitional strategy towards renewable technologies that are actually using the enormous potentials that you have in the country. To me it doesn’t make any sense.” 

Greenpeace Africa is also asking what use South Africa has for the “dated, dirty and needlessly expensive coal and nuclear energy” when alternative energy sources can address environmental concerns, job creation and sustainable energy and development, said Michael Onyeka O’brien, executive director of Greenpeace Africa, in an AFKInsider report.