Why its important to build nuclear power plants now

150711. Sunset in Crownmines, Johannesburg. The picture can be used for Eskom energy supply crisis. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

The Power Reactor Information System (PRIS), a system developed and maintained for over four decades by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, is a comprehensive database focusing on nuclear power plants worldwide. PRIS contains information on nuclear power reactors in operation, under construction, or those being decommissioned. All information and data items are collected by the IAEA via data providers nominated by Member States.www.iaea.org/pris

PRISA shows that 374 out of 441 reactors were built in 10 or less than 10 years. There is a tail of 15% that have taken longer to build. The mean construction time of 441 reactors in use today was 7.5 years. (Euan Mearns 2016) There are extreme cases, like the current Plants in Finland and France who are approaching 18 years.

This means that if you are planning to build a Nuclear Plant, you must at least plan for 10 years before it can start plugging into the electricity grid of a country. Speaking at a Cape Town event the morning following his inaugural Medium Term Budget Policy Statement, Malusi Gigaba is quoted as saying South Africa won’t have the money for a major nuclear programme for at least the next five years. This means South Africa will start considering building a Nuclear Plant in 2022. If you then add the average 7.5 years it takes to build a Nuclear reactor and connect it to the grid, we will have our first Nuclear plant supplying electricity to the grid in 2030.

Gigaba said there’s less pressure on government to deliver more energy into the grid now as Eskom has 5,700 megawatts of surplus electricity because our low growth environment has made for a slowdown in demand for power. (EWN October).

Gigaba is effectively rejecting building Nuclear Power plants for two reasons. That we cannot afford such an expensive project and that it is not necessary now because our economy is not growing, leaving us with excess power supply. The silent reason behind Gigaba’s reasons, besides endearing himself to those from whom he seeks emoluments is that he does not believe South Africa will have any significant economic growth in the next 5 years.

Speaking at an Economic Colloquium organized by the ANC greater Joburg Region, Ramaphosa set new ambitions for South Africa’s economy, targeting gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 3% in 2018, rising to 5% growth by 2023. If these ambitions were to be realized, the +/-5,700MW of electricity surplus that we are said to have, as a result of slow economic growth, would surely disappear. This may happen before or by 2023. If according to Gigaba that is the time we must start building our Nuclear reactors, then the next 7.5 years of economic growth may well be hamstrung by lack of enough electricity and at worst by Load Shedding.

The Western Cape is familiar with this kind of thinking hence the water crisis we now face. When the City of Cape Town was asked by an Environmental writer in July 2009 ”How long will Cape Town’s water supplies last? After the Berg River Dam was built; the city said, the Berg River Dam will provide enough water until 2020’. Whatever reasons for this view, we are now facing the worst catastrophe of any modern city in recent memory. A city that does not have a 50 to 100 year plan is doomed. And so is a country.

Gigaba’s own dilemmas, a need to show a sense of independence and anti-corruption posture on one hand, and a desire to seem not to be completely averse to the Nuclear deal has put him in a state of paralysis. The result of this is a country that has not future plan for energy which will no doubt render itself into its own paralysis because of poor planning for a positive future.

There is however something more worrying about the sustained push back against building our own Nuclear reactors. Speaking at a former Heads of States gathering in UNISA, Former President Thabo Mbeki highlighted that one of the reasons Zimbabwe could not convert their platinum from primary to secondary stage was because they did not have enough power to smelt their platinum, a process which requires huge amounts of energy.

It may well be that even our own country’s continued exportation of raw materials instead of secondary of finished products is tied to our lack of energy, as opposed to the widely taunted lack of skill or know-how.

Finland and France are both building Nuclear reactors that are expected to be completed by 2018. There is no sign that they are responding to any sudden windfall of economic growth but they know that even at current levels, there are certain economic imperatives, like purifying the raw materials that come from Africa that needs huge amounts of electricity. And of course the importance of planning for the future.

In an article by Todd Jaquith entitled ”There’s No Argument against Nuclear Power’, Todd says, ”there’s just nothing else capable of supplying the kind of power our civilization needs (at least, among proven and implemented technologies). The energy density of uranium is simply too immense — something like 80 million megajoules per kilogram’.

South Africa has huge economic potential and if the multiple experts are correct, that political instability and policy uncertainty has been standing in the way of us realizing this potential, then once that aspect is satisfied, we should be realizing great amounts of economic growth. If we don’t build the energy for that economic growth, are we not planting new seeds for new problems?

It therefore feels like a contradiction to have people fighting for economic growth on one hand and then fighting against nuclear plants on the other. We need the energy supply for the growth we so desire.

South Africa has a plan, the NDP, and we still have a chance to realize it. It’s time we put down the energy we need for that plan.

Yonela Diko is a Media & Communications Strategist