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SA nuclear debate not cut and dried

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President Jacob Zuma’s remarks during last week’s State of the Nation address on the country’s nuclear future might seem contradictory, but this is not the case, says Dr Anthonie Cilliers of North West University’s School of Mechanical & Nuclear Engineering.

Zuma said South Africa’s nuclear build programme would roll out at a pace the country can afford and that the plan was to introduce 9 600MW of nuclear energy in the next decade.

“The government has been conducting a number of studies on the affordability of the new build nuclear programme,” says Dr Cilliers. “It is, however, important to assure this to the public. In the past year a perception has been left in the media that the nuclear programme will go ahead without any knowledge of the cost and responsibilities that come with it.  I hope the president’s comments will help to change this perception.”

He says South Africans should not be worried: “Contrary to popular sentiment, the process of 9 600MW of nuclear procurement has been extremely open and transparent. The vendor parades were well documented within the confidentiality constraints of a competitive bidding process. Government has cancelled an unaffordable tender process in 2009 indicating the commitment to affordability.

“I want to emphasise what the president said” we remain committed to the 9 600MW of Nuclear New Build, but we will do it at a scale and pace the country can afford – that is what we should so.”

Professor Johan Slabber, professor in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Pretoria, points out: “Contrary to what people think and believe, nuclear power provides by far the safest option. It also compares virtually on a one to one basis with coal when it comes to the costing. Although the capital cost is somewhat higher to start with, its running cost is much lower.”

Prof Slabber points out that the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station has been running smoothly now for more than 30 years: “Its load factor is 90% plus, compared to coal fired stations which run at 75%. It is the ‘cash cow’ at the moment for Eskom. So with this as a clear example of a reliable and safe technology, why hesitate any longer?”

Dr Cilliers adds: “I believe very strongly that nuclear energy has the potential to transform our country’s economy as it has done for South Korea – catapulting it from the second poorest country in the world to an industrial and economic power house.

“To support that I believe I should focus on two things: building the right skills required; and ensuring that we understand exactly the magnitude of the challenge we are taking on.

“To address the first one we have initiated the South African Network for Nuclear Education, Science and Technology (SAN-NEST). To address the second one, I have initiated a project to build a small zero power reactor suitable for nuclear training at the NWU.”

Russian nuclear energy firm Rosatom is seen as a favourite to win the bid for a second nuclear reactor in South Africa, and regional vice-president: sub-Saharan Africa at Rosatom Viktor Polikarpov comments: “We are ready to co-operate with local companies to revitalise the entire nuclear industry in South Africa, to develop a full-scale nuclear cluster of world class standards, from the front-end of nuclear fuel cycle up to the engineering and manufacturing of complex power equipment and in doing so, create reliable partners that can assist us in achieving our ambitions further up in Africa.

“South Africa has the infrastructure, technical capabilities and legislation in place for this to become a reality now.“

Dr Cilliers, Prof Slabber and Rosatom are some of the nuclear experts who will be part of the discussions at the upcoming Nuclear Power Africa on 19 May in Cape Town.