Nuclear power for SA

The SA Minister of Minerals and Energy, Buyelwa Sonjica, recently announced that South Africa is in the process of conducting a cost-benefit analysis into the viability of uranium enrichment for the purposes of electricity generation. This should be a welcome move for thousands of people that have suffered power shortages and interruptions over the last few months and the millions of individuals that currently have little or no access to electricity.

The South African government recently set itself the target of attaining an average annual growth rate of 6 per cent, but according to Eskom, reaching this goal would require national electricity capacity to increase by 2,000 MW per annum over the next twenty years. Nuclear power has the ability to meet the majority, if not all, of these demands. Eskom says that a single Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) is capable of producing 165 MW of electricity, which currently equates to the electricity requirements of approximately 30,000 households. However, given the current capacity and the growth in demand for electricity, projections show that South Africa will run out of excess peaking capacity by 2007 and excess base load capacity by 2010.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approximately 6 per cent of South Africa’s total electricity is generated by the two nuclear reactors based in Koeberg. Large coal-fired stations still provide the bulk of the capacity and generate approximately 90 per cent of South Africa’s electricity (the remainder is generated through hydroelectric power).

Nuclear power has a number of advantages over fossil fuels. One kilogram of natural uranium contains as much energy as 38.5 tons of coal. A single, 30-gram pellet of uranium generates as much energy as 3.5 barrels of oil or 481 cubic metres of natural gas, with virtually none of the carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2) or nitrogen oxide (NO2) emissions. Indeed, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore is calling for a “massive expansion” of nuclear energy in order to combat global warming.

Worldwide the number of reactors is increasing, with more than 440 in operation, producing approximately 17 per cent of the world’s total electricity, and a further 27 are under construction. As a proportion of total electricity generated, France is the largest producer of nuclear energy, with more than 78% of its total electricity capacity produced by some 59 reactors, creating 63,363MW of electricity.

A number of other developed countries such as Sweden, Belgium and Lithuania rely on nuclear power for more than 50 per cent of their total power requirements. Another ten countries, including Finland, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea, Spain and Switzerland rely on nuclear plants to provide 30 per cent or more of their total supplies. Furthermore, an increasing number of developing nations such as Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Pakistan, are relying on nuclear energy for their electricity requirements.

Some concern has been expressed over potential criticism from western powers if South Africa chooses to enrich uranium for the purposes of electricity production. However, these concerns are largely unfounded as South Africa is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state. Its safeguards agreement under the NPT came into force in 1991. Between 1979 and 1989 South Africa had built and then dismantled a number of nuclear weapons. In 1995 the IAEA was able to declare that it was satisfied that all materials were accounted for and the weapons programme had been terminated and dismantled.

According to the Pretoria-based nuclear physicist Dr. Kelvin Kemm, fuel for the new generation pebble bed reactors comes in the form of small base-ball-sized balls, each containing sugar-grain-sized particles of uranium encapsulated in high-temperature graphite and ceramic. This new generation type technology reduces waste disposal problems because PBMR fuel balls are virtually burnt to depletion, which also reduces the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation.

The benefits of nuclear energy are real, while the risks are mostly hypothetical. The new generation pebble bed reactors can be built in approximately 24 months and the plants do not emit carbon dioxide. The plants have the potential to fulfil all of South Africa’s electricity requirements and increase the standard of living of millions of individuals currently suffering from a lack of access to a cheap, low-pollution form of electricity. When decisions are made concerning future sources of electric power, facts, not fear, should be the basis for appraising the nuclear industry’s place in electricity generation.

Author: Jasson Urbach is an economist with the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 19 September 2006

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