Energy in Africa

South Africa presses the nuclear button
Tom Nevin
Published: 01-MAR-07

Two developments in South Africa�s energy arena hold high significance, both for the immediate region and the continent that the country is mapping out a nuclear future.

The government declarations in mid-February came simultaneously: one announced that work is to begin on a second nuclear power station, and the other proclaimed South Africa�s deposits of uranium as a strategic reserve.

The government is said to be considering a wide-ranging nuclear energy programme that could see a string of five atom-powered electricity generators scattered throughout the country. The recently announced facility will probably be situated at Koeberg, the current nuclear power station near Cape Town, a move aimed at contributing more baseload power to the southern part of the national grid areas, in recent times most affected by power shortages.

�To that end,� he said, �we are finalising a national nuclear energy strategy which will be a comprehensive policy that will look at the utilisation of nuclear energy.�

The government has not confirmed or denied speculation emanating from the corridors of power that its medium-term plan includes a series of nuclear energy generators in the 1 500MW to 1 800MW range, some sited in the northern provinces of Limpopo and Northern Cape and others in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Gauteng. Public Affairs Minister Alec Erwin has, however, conceded that nuclear energy will be a central plank in the government�s energy strategy, while identifying uranium as a strategic mineral to secure nuclear energy supply.

Nuclear the lead option

In pressing the nuclear button, South Africa shuffled the atom to the front of the pack of energy-generating options it has to choose from to confront an electricity shortage now reaching critical proportions. Rolling blackouts and load-shedding has become the order of the South African day as galloping economic growth consumes more power than Eskom, the government-owned electricity monopoly, can supply. The Eskom shortfall is also a worry for the clutch of neighbouring countries that Eskom supplies. The nuclear ramp-up, along with other new generating potential, as demothballing old thermal stations, the possibility of building new ones, the commissioning of gas turbine installations in the Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, and serious consideration of such clean energy provision as wind, solar and tidal facilities will be of comfort.

But nuclear is the flavour of the moment and its development as an affordable and environmentally sound alternative to gas and coal-fired sources is now at centre stage. Also in the nuclear mix the demonstration Pebble Bed Modular Reactor plant at Koeberg is going ahead as planned, providing top-up power of about 165MW.

In light of its nuclear expansion, South Africa�s reserves of uranium � a nuclear fuel derivative � was declared a strategic mineral. It is a mineral South Africa has in abundance, and which the country is eager to add value to as it builds its nuclear energy capacity.

As a strategic mineral, the government will have more controls over uranium�s production and exportation to ensure that South Africa has adequate reserves of the mineral in years to come. �We can�t export uranium when we want to embark on a nuclear programme,� says Minerals and Energy Minister Bulelwa Sonjica. �We want to ensure that all the time, when we need it, we have reserves in store. There will be limitations on the export of uranium. We�ll be managing it very carefully.�

These interventions are expected to add thousands of megawatts over the short-term to the electricity grid which, with its capacity currently stretched to a limit of between 37 500MW and 40 000MW, is in �a tight supply� situation, Erwin conceded.

Eskom is the largest single supplier of electricity in Africa, answering to about 63 per cent of the continent�s power needs. It is the eleventh-largest electricity utility in the world and supplies about 95 per cent of the electricity consumed in South Africa.

South Africa will make other, long term infrastructural adjustments over the next 10 to 20 years, says Mr Erwin, and these will put paid to the current tight electricity supply situation.

The South African economy is currently in the largest upswing in its history. Gross Domestic Product per capita growth was less than one per cent per year between 1994 and 2003, but then accelerated from 3,1 percent in 2003 to 4,8 percent in 2004, and up to 5,1 percent in 2005.

In taking the nuclear route, South Africa joins a growing nuclear power capacity taking place in developing nations, including those that had sworn off the atom in the wake of nuclear mishaps at Chernobyl in Russia and Three Mile Island in the US. Such incidents seem to have receded sufficiently in the global memory to allow a robust nuclear renaissance worldwide. -Business in Africa Magazine

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