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SA Must Embrace Nuclear Energy for a Sustainable Future

09 August 2013

Routledge Modise

Despite receiving bad press as a hangover from earlier models of nuclear fission stations from the 1970s and 1980s, modern nuclear stations are very safe as a result of the maturing of the technology and exhaustive safety and security protocols. These include improved storage, contamination and waste management technology and stricter processes, compared with 20 years ago.

The proof of this is the fact that we no longer hear stories about toxic dumping and leaking waste containers, as modern waste management technology has improved alongside tighter regulations, which impose severe penalties for toxic dumping, with those responsible liable for prosecution.

Detractors might look at the relatively recent events at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, in Japan — it took the power of a tsunami to damage this nuclear station and not even one casualty was recorded.

Further, there have been no significant levels of concern regarding future casualties as a result of the incident.

Fukushima was working on older technology and, despite this and the fury of the tsunami, passed the safety test, even when its core was flooded. New nuclear plants are designed with their pump houses situated higher up and off the ground to prevent any flooding mishaps in the future. Other countries started weaning themselves off polluting fossil fuels years back and invested strongly in nuclear energy.

For example, there are currently 65 commercially operating nuclear power plants, with 104 nuclear reactors in the US, while nuclear energy provides over 74% of France's total baseload energy generation. Other examples include Germany, Russia and South Korea, all of which generate significant amounts of their total electricity requirements using nuclear stations.

Currently, 4.5% of South African energy is nuclear. It is forecast that, by 2030, there will be an increase to 13.4% of overall generation, which does not come close to many other countries.

Renewable-energy sources like wind and solar farms are showing promising results; however, the technology is still immature, compared with other electricity generation technologies. The issue of scale and the imprudence of relying on relatively uncertain natural resources mean that renewable energy cannot be the foundation of South Africa's baseload generation. Vast stretches of land would be needed to generate the required baseload generation from wind farms, for example, while solar cannot sufficiently store and generate energy when it is needed most, that is, during the peak hours between 17:00 and 21:00.

Further, it would be expensive and precarious for national energy security to import gas from North Africa, and the possible dangers of water contamination from shale-gas fracking in the Karoo are well known. In light of this, the South African government needs to accelerate its nuclear energy build programme as the country's energy capacity and economy cannot afford not to have the sustainable energy of nuclear power if it wishes to create a prosperous future.

Estimated at anywhere between R400-billion and R500-billion or more, the capital expenditure of nuclear energy plants is huge. However, these can generate clean and sustainable energy for up to 60 years at a stable cost.

Calculated over a period of 60 years, compared with the increasing cost of other conventional energy sources, the numbers for nuclear make sense. The reality, though, is that, at current estimations, the cost of this new build would be more than 50% of the South African Revenue Service's revenue target for 2013.

The central question, though, is: Can we afford not to do it? This is pertinent as rising fossil fuel costs and carbon footprints become increasingly crucial issues with respect to the need for a future of economically sustainable baseload generation in South Africa. The builds would also take eight to ten years and the costs could be staggered throughout construction.

Government's current nuclear build programme aims to construct three power stations with two generators each to produce a total of 9 600 MW of electricity between 2023 and 2030, an amount which would represent about 20% of the country's current electricity generation and 17% of the country's new build commitments in terms of the Integrated Resource Plan 2010.

Public education on the benefits of nuclear needs to start now in order to build momentum for a sustainable and stable solution for our long-term energy needs. The controversial issues are around waste and disaster management, both of which are being further investigated by government. The information obtained in these probes should be shared with the public.

This information is likely to provide a level of comfort for the public. The benefits should also be addressed. Nuclear negates the need for ever increasing fuel costs such as those associated with conventional power stations using fossil fuels like coal, for example. All these points highlight the need for South Africa to start embracing nuclear energy now for a sustainable and prosperous economic future.

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