x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

South Africa sticks with nuclear

Nations have renounced nuclear power after the Fukushima accident, but South Africa remains undeterred.

Koeberg nuclear power station in South Africa. The country is expanding its nuclear power programme to guarantee ‘security of supply’.
Koeberg nuclear power station in South Africa. The country is expanding its nuclear power programme to guarantee ‘security of supply’.

PARIS // Japan, Italy and Germany have renounced nuclear power since the Fukushima accident in March, but one nation remains undeterred. "We need to have security of supply," said Dipuo Peters, the South African energy minister. "That's the bottom line."

South Africa plans next year to launch the first tender for what is hoped to be a 9,600-megawatt nuclear power programme, and the estimated cost of those reactors is forecast to account for as much as a fifth of global nuclear investment over the next two decades.

Meanwhile, Japan and Italy have said they will not build any new reactors, and Germany is accelerating its phase-out of atomic energy after the earthquake and tsunami in March that sent three reactors at Japan's Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant into meltdown and triggered radiation contamination.

The case of South Africa illustrates the difficult choice many nations face as they try to balance safety concerns about nuclear power with growing energy needs.

On one hand, they can give up or forgo nuclear energy by increasing reliance on fossil fuels, making it more difficult to cut the emissions believed to lead to climate change. The other option is to ignore potential public fears and move ahead with atomic energy, which offers a steady power supply rather than wind turbines or solar panels whose output peaks during the day.

"We have an energy-intensive industry, and our industries need a baseload," Ms Peters said on the sidelines of a meeting in Paris. "So if we have to reduce coal because of the climate change imperatives, we needed something that can be able to buttress the intermittent availability of wind and solar."

South Africa's push for nuclear comes 26 years after it brought its first nuclear reactors online, still the only ones on the African continent.

The 900-megawatt reactors produce 5 per cent of the nation's power, while coal-fired plants account for 90 per cent. A lack of funding has prevented the state utility Eskom from building a third plant.

But a power shortage in 2008 that shut down mining operations and cost billions in lost production increased the call for nuclear energy.

Last month, Ms Peters told reporters in Johannesburg that she would present a plan to the cabinet for 9,600 megawatts of nuclear power plants worth tens of billions of dollars, with new power arriving on the grid in 2024.

This week the minister brushed off fears about South Africa being the first African nation to bring on new nuclear power since the Fukushima accident.

"We were the first African nation to host the World Cup," she said. "So it can't make us afraid."

Among the resources South Africa mines is uranium, the raw material that is processed for nuclear fuel.

In March, Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, visited Paris to sign agreements with state utility EDF and reactor maker Areva, the French companies that export nuclear technology.

Among the companies believed to be targeting South African nuclear contracts are the French firms, Westinghouse of the US, Russia's Rosatom, China's Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, and Korea Electric Power, the South Korean company that led the consortium that won the contract for Abu Dhabi's US$20 billion (Dh73.46bn) nuclear plant.

The emirate expects nuclear to represent as much as a quarter of its power by the time all four of the planned reactors come online in 2020. This week, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, the government-owned company in charge of building and operating the plant in the Western Region, requested approval from the UAE nuclear regulator to begin laying the foundation for the site of the first two reactors while the regulator reviews its full construction application.