Can South Africa afford nuclear energy?

In the National Development Plan (NDP) for 2030, the National Planning Commission (NPC) has given the country a view of an energy future different from the Department of Energy’s (DoE) vision. This difference comes about, primarily, with its position on nuclear power.

While DoE is pushing ahead with its large-scale nuclear build, the NPC has raised huge objections on this 9600MW build, particularly because of the financial consequences. For the last twenty years, civil society, religious organisations, labour, and ordinary citizens—as the kind of active citizens that the NPC calls for—have been pointing out that nuclear power is unaffordable and unsafe.

In effect, the NPC is in, at least, the spirit if not the bounds of the law and the Constitution in its call for a reassessment of nuclear power. Government itself appears to be unsure how much this 9600MW of nuclear power will ultimately cost, giving figures between R400 million and R1 trillion, and, thus, could well be acting illegally if it continues on its current path of procuring new nuclear plants. Treasury has yet to even do a feasibility study on the costs of these new nuclear reactors.

The Department of Energy’s current course of action would preclude the state from being in a position to carry out its constitutional duty, as set out in Section 195 and 217 of the Constitution, the Public Finance Management Act and Promotion of Administrative Justice Act. All of these legal instruments require the state to ensure that it has taken all reasonable steps to promote the most efficient, economic, cost-effective, transparent, accountable, and competitive use of public funds.

By suggesting a rethink on nuclear power and further clarity on the costs, the NPC is more in line with the law than the DoE is

How can DoE give effect to these laws if it cannot give us a straight answer on the costs of nuclear power? DoE wants to buy six new nuclear reactors, each the size of Koeberg, without even knowing the true costs. This is reckless use of public funds.

By suggesting a rethink on nuclear power and further clarity on the costs, the NPC is more in line with the law than the DoE is. However, there is a far more fundamental question regarding nuclear power; do we even need it? Ironically, both the DoE and the NPC seem to agree that South Africa can meet its expected energy demand in the next twenty years without recourse to nuclear power.

In May 2011, the Department of Energy gazetted the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2010, which maps out the electricity generation pathway for the next two decades. When this Plan was run through the Department of Energy’s computer modelling programme, the result was that the most cost-effective plan, which also met our carbon emissions and security of supply requirements, didn’t include nuclear. The Department then reinserted nuclear power as a matter of policy; basically, because we have a policy on nuclear, we must have it.

The risks of costs overruns and massive long term debt from the DoE’s planned nuclear build are by no means insignificant. The IRP 2010 appears to promote Generation III+ nuclear technology, which has been beset with cost overruns and delays. For example, construction began on Areva’s Olkiluoto reactor in Finland in 2005, it was to be completed in 2009, but will only be completed in August 2014, if not later. This reactor was budgeted at €3 billion, but cost overruns have increased this figure to €5.3 billion. Areva and the Finnish utility TVO are fighting each other in the courts over the delay.

The National Planning Commission has also charted an alternative energy pathway that does not include new nuclear reactors, and thus avoids the financial, safety, and environmental risks of nuclear power. While other areas in the NPC’s alternative pathway are highly debatable, such as its support for environmentally unfriendly fracking and its unambitious targets for renewable energy, the myth that South Africa needs nuclear power has been busted completely.

Unless Cabinet and the Department of Energy start listening to not only civil society and organised labour but also dissenting voices within national government, they will inflict upon this nation a very expensive and unnecessary nuclear power build programme. Nuclear power will be the alter upon which this country will be bankrupted, and we will run the risk of a nuclear accident like Fukushima or Chernobyl. Why? The NDP and IRP2010 tell us that it would be for no real reason at all.

Tristen Taylor a Project Coordinator at Earthlife Africa in Johannesburg.

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