Energy in Africa


South Africa and the nuclear renaissance
John Etkind
Published: 07-APR-06

Nobody had said it better or more plainly: �South Africa faces severe electricity challenges, with the peaking power crunch due in 2007/08 and average growth in demand of about 3 percent per year, driven by industrialisation and technological developments,� in the words of energy sector specialist Jean Madzongwe at the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA).

It�s one of those statements that makes people sit up and take notice, and begin thinking what it would be like if they flicked on the light switch and nothing happened. Darkness remained all around.

Because of the way South Africa is using power in its relentless growth spurt, blackouts will be the norm rather than the exception unless something is done remarkably quickly � no mean feat in the plodding ethos of the electricity providers.

Madzongwe says R171bn (about $30bn) has been earmarked for the next decade to fund new energy infrastructure. For the size of the job at hand, that�s peanuts and the figure is regularly revised upwards.

The power-generating infrastructure mix being contemplated revisits nuclear power as a clean, safe and cost-effective way of helping to pull the region back from the black abyss. Other sources include un-mothballing three thermal coal-burning power stations, building new ones, gas-fired plants and an array of such renewable source energy generators as solar, wind and biomass.

But it�s nuclear that has everyone all fired up. And seeing how South Africa is already a nuclear nation, and is well down the research road with its home-grown nuclear power generators, the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), the ruckus over the country�s increased nuclear activity is rather more muted than in other parts of the world.

South Africa has two nuclear reactors generating 6 percent of its electricity, both situated at the Koeberg nuclear facility in the Western Cape, about 40km north of Cape Town. Its first nuclear power reactor began operating in 1984, followed a year later by its twin. The power station is owned and operated by Eskom.

In the looming power crunch Eskom, along with the departments of minerals and energy and public enterprises, is now giving more serious consideration to extending its nuclear power-generating capability.

Eskom spokesperson, Carin de Villiers, has confirmed to Energy in Africa that the energy sector is considering building at least one more large-scale 900mW nuclear power generator such as those at Koeberg, along with its commitment to the more compact pebble bed research and development programme aimed at turning out 165mWe capacity reactors.

�We�re also interested in what�s being done in Europe, especially the European Pressurised Water Reactor.� In this process water under intense pressure is circulated and heated around the reactor core. EPRs are third-generation nuclear power reactors expected to go into general use in Europe over the next 20 years.

The pebble bed connection
�The PBMR is a world-first engineering design based on certain aspects of proven technology, such as its spherical fuel, for instance,� says Geraldine Bennett, PBMR�s deputy manager of communication.

�China is experimenting with a pebble bed research reactor, while South Africa is has designed and is committed to begin construction of a 165mWe pebble bed modular reactor.�

The PBMR is a response to the serious energy crisis facing South Africa and while this could be met by such less controversial means as solar and wind generation, or by coal fired power stations using the country�s massive coal reserves, the government is committed to a spread of energy generation, including such renewable sources as wind, solar and biomass. Eskom is testing three wind turbines in the Western Cape, but even with dozens of wind fields and large-scale solar installations, only a small fraction of the country�s power needs would be met. The energy sector has confirmed that it is considering more nuclear installations the size of Koeberg, and this is a logical option in the face of an approaching energy crisis that appears dire.

Even the simplest arithmetic is chilling: South Africa produces some 40�000mWe of power every year and that�s enough, with almost no surplus, to light up the country, run its industries and mines and export some to regional consumers. For the past five years South Africa�s GDP has grown at an average of just over 3 percent. The government is committed to increase this to a sustainable 6 percent by 2010. It�s also an irrevocable fact that if South Africa is to double its growth, it must more than double its generation and distribution of electrical power to an excess of 80�000mWe. That will cost a lot more than the R171bn the energy sector has earmarked for its upgrade and new power generation plans, especially of it intends getting serious with such green generation as wind, sun and other organic resources. They�re simply not cost efficient just yet, requiring massive means to deliver not a lot of power.

Answers lie in more coal-burning thermal power stations, gas fired turbines and �nukes�. Of the three options, re-commissioning older closed-down coal-burners would be the fastest, followed by new gas-fired installations, erecting new fossil-fuel thermal generators, building an array of PBMRs and finally establishing new Koeberg-sized nuclear plants.

Distant station friendly
The 165mWe PBMR demonstration facility at Koeberg, due to start test generating in 2010, will contribute to the Western Cape�s main power grid, already showing signs of strain as the province�s growth races ahead.

�Its particular attraction is its potential for deployment or construction in remote areas where dedicated grid systems can be established in close proximity for the demand for power,� Bennett points out.

The Western Cape is illustrative of the way the lights could go out all over South Africa and the price of electricity forced up sharply. The Koeberg facility is barely able to supply the Cape�s power demands in summer, and blackouts have become commonplace. In winter, top-up power must be transmitted along 1 600km of high tension cable from Mpumalanga�s coal-fired plants.

�The loss of electricity during the journey just doesn�t make too much financial sense,� says Bennett, �and more generation in the region is becoming essential. The demonstration plant will contribute to the grid, albeit quite a long way in the future.� The long-term intention for the demo model once it goes critical for the three-year test phase and successfully completes it, is to hand it over entirely to Eskom to run on an owner-operator basis with support and fuel manufacture by PBMR for its 40-year life.

There are a number of registered nuclear sites around South Africa. Right now, they�re nature reserves � such as Pelindaba � and the owners, Eskom, could consider building reactors on them in due course.

�Part of PBMR�s business plan,� says Bennett, �is to go beyond the demonstration plant and build multi-modules with a view to exploring the African and wider international markets. Our research is attracting quite a lot of attention around the continent, and also from around the world.� �Smaller countries from the former Soviet bloc are keenly aware of what we�re doing, and United States entities are interested in our research, because it�s first-time development. America�s new generation nuclear generation technology is aimed at grander output � 600mW to 1�000mW � while our niche for power needs a lot less than that, around 165mWe and in packs of two, four, six or eight modules.�

This Bennett describes as �a fabulous market positioning. There�s a gap in the market for small reactors in specific areas and that�s where we�re headed.� Both China and France are dabbling in similar processes �but with different technology�, says Bennett. �Ours is more advanced, superior and safer.�

The technology is ideal for development nodes in third world countries where small towns have sprung up in deep rural locations around mining operations, agricultural estates and industrial plants.

Eskom�s for now, but not for long
At 40 percent Eskom is PBMR�s majority shareholder, but this will change as the operation moves from 11 years as a project- oriented organisation to a commercial enterprise with new investment and shareholding. Eskom�s intention is to reduce its PBMR ownership over a period to make way for new owners as interest in the project mounts, especially with the government throwing its weight behind the project.

Making it even more interesting is the fact that Eskom, at the urging of the government, could commit itself to buying 23 reactors plus the demo model at around a reported R2bn each, even though it will only know for sure if the technology is up to scratch by 2013.

It�s a leap of faith of gigantic proportions with a development price tag of around R15bn, five or six times its 1998 estimate. (PMBR expects to start the first reactor fuel loading in 2011 and complete testing in 2013.)

There seems, however, no pouring of cold water on the government�s enthusiasm for the project. It is now an integral component of the integrated Strategic Energy Plan for the country�s development programme.

�The department of Public Enterprise and Eskom have included the equivalent of 4�700mW of PMBR reactors, that is, between 20 and 30 reactors,� says Gaynor Kast, spokeswoman for the department, adding that Eskom will reduce its shareholding in PBMR to less than 10 percent. �This reduces any conflict of interest issues given Eskom�s role as shareholder and customer.�

It also gives the project a hefty marketing boost with R48bn in sales to shout about.

However, Eskom spokesperson, Carin de Villiers, says the interest is there but nothing hard and fast will be decided until after the test period.

The nuclear affairs chief director at the department of minerals and energy, Tseliso Maqubela, notes: �One of our government�s objectives is to ensure security of energy supply through diversification of primary energy sources. The pursuit of nuclear energy options is in keeping with that objective. The PBMR has the potential to be a major contributor to meeting South Africa�s electricity needs and indeed the needs of other countries.�

This report was first published in Energy in Africa Magazine, February 2006 - April 2006. To subscribe click here

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