The new Minister of Minerals and Energy Resources, Gwede Mantashe, has reopened the debate on whether South Africa needs nuclear power. He suggested a new nuclear plant should be commissioned by 2040 to replace Koeberg, which will reach the end of its lifespan by 2047.
The year 2040 is far off and monumental shifts in electricity delivery will occur before then. The promoters of nuclear energy will spin yarns that it’s cheap, that it creates many jobs and reignites a nuclear-based industrial paradise. At best, these are public relations exercises. You hear the same claims about oil and gas. It all depends on how you stack up the numbers and what you are willing to believe.
Yes, nuclear will create jobs during construction, but those jobs will rapidly dwindle once that phase is finished.
A hard-nosed measure of all claims from all technology providers must be taken.
We need additional clean power and when South Africa’s economy expands, the reserve margins of old coal-fired plants and a sprinkling of renewable energy sources will not be enough to meet demand. Partly, this is because these cantankerous, clunky old coal machines have been consistently out of service and are not operating at full capacity.
Nonetheless, third generation-plus pressurised nuclear water reactors may become passé if new modular nuclear technologies have their way. Fourth generation nuclear plants will have features such as fit-for-size (power is built up based on need in a more predictable way aligned with demand growth). They will be more efficient and safer. What is true for nuclear may also become true for fuel cells.
It seems fuel cells are going to take off, given the projected plans for the roll-out of Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV) in Japan and China over the next 20 years.
There will be massive developments in fuel cells that will have transformative effects beyond the automotive industry. This is because battery-based electric vehicles have an insatiable demand for lithium, cobalt, graphite and other strategic minerals. Besides geo-economic interests (for instance, China has the largest stockpile of rare earths in the world) for these minerals, security of supply chains and cost issues will increasingly shift the balance towards more FCEVs.
Shifts are happening in the generation of electricity and the models of how to supply it. Government should be watching this space more closely than it is. It is certain that the level of control government has over energy supply, distribution and its fundamental economics will move out of its control.
Transformative shifts in supply and demand in South Africa will be significant and will perhaps separate, with time, the coupling between economic growth and energy supply. We should not hinge our energy economy on an outdated utility system. Rather, we should consider electricity as a wellspring of activity in which everybody has the capacity to participate in a networked system if we reconfigure the system to enable this. Even the current unbundling mooted for Eskom is only scratching the surface.
So, why is nuclear a troublesome prospect?
First, modular technologies are more amenable to cost reductions over time if one chooses an auction model of procuring such power. We have enough experience in the procuring of renewable power to know that for certain.
This, however, is very different for bulk infrastructure. Paper claims of cheap power often do not withstand scrutiny once construction commences. We have good overseas experience and data for nuclear, as well as all sorts of bulk infrastructure around the world, that show consistency in cost-overruns for mega-projects.
In South Africa we need not look too far. Consider the enormous cost overruns for two of the largest supercritical coal-fired power plants in the southern hemisphere. The record is abysmal if not scandalous. As well, consider Sasol’s mega Lake Charles project that is subject to scrutiny by key shareholders because of cost overruns. Then there is the largest hydro-project in Africa: the 10GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) which is way behind schedule. Need we go any further?
If we go for nuclear we are bound to repeat the same mistake. It is guaranteed – global megaproject statistical data is clear about the likely outcome: you end up spending more than promoters say you will.
Second, nuclear power always involves geopolitical intrigue. It’s not only subject to corporate capture but also sovereign capture. If you stick with a foreign power for technology and other dependencies, given the bulky nature and complexity of nuclear power, you have built yourself a useful bridge for fiscal and political influence over the sovereign’s decision-making powers.
We may have domesticated the nuclear generation capacity, but not our dependencies. If you are interested in geopolitical intrigue, just follow the emerging story on the Middle East Marshall Plan involving the disgraced former US national security adviser General Michael Flynn and the secret meetings with Russia and the Trump administration to supply Saudi Arabia and the UAE with 40 nuclear plants for civilian purposes. This deal is unlikely to go through because it falls foul of the US Atomic Energy Act’s 138 agreements that allow Congress to restrict to whom the US can supply nuclear technology.
Third, nuclear must always be the exception rather than the rule, especially if there are other, cheaper sources of power that meet three key criteria: low in technological complexity; innately competitive through an auction price discovery model; and quickly installable. These options should be stretched as far as possible before deciding to take technology options that inevitably involve long-run dependencies on a foreign supplier or government and are kneaded with construction and regulatory complexities.
Fourth, we may dismiss the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents as minor blips in the flotilla of operating nuclear plants. The temptation is to regard nuclear hazards as rare. This may be true. They are rare but significant. When disasters do happen, the scandal is not why the disaster happened but how ill-prepared authorities were in dealing with it.
You just have to read the declassified transcripts (in the National Security Archives of Georgetown University) to see how ill-prepared Soviet officials were for Chernobyl. An independent report in 2012 came to the same conclusion on the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
Because nuclear disasters do not happen regularly like fire hazards (where there is learning and doing on a regular basis) academic knowledge does not prepare you – to use Clausewitz’s analogy for war – for friction: the uncertainty of unfolding multiple crises that stretch the capacity to make decisions where each decision throws up the possibility of many uncertain outcomes.
Because each nuclear plant is unique given geography, culture, public sensitivity and economic circumstances, the effects of the disaster have their own metrics of risk depending on the country in which it happens.
A nuclear disaster can be overwhelming to the economy and psyche of the populace. One incident can lead to many plants being shut down and even if they are brought back online, the costs of safety measures will rise dramatically. The systemic effects on the fiscus and economy can be eviscerating, costing much more than it did to build the plants.
Finally, there is the “10% premium”. Every large infrastructure project is tilted in such a way that there are sure to be channels for backhand deals. Given South Africa’s recent corruption spree, special arrangements with foreign powers – in state-to-state deals for nuclear power or not – without much transparency, and projects that have significant capital intensity over long periods will ensure that illicit flows to political entrepreneurs and others will cost taxpayers dearly. If the revelations at the Zondo Commission are not sufficient warning, then we may just concur that the devil does not play dice – he just takes.
Because of this, and for many other reasons, one should continue to maintain a certain apostasy towards nuclear power, especially if one can avoid the adventure into the unknown. DM