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  • Corbyn Muller

Author: Des Muller – Spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform

Over the next two weeks, the developed world’s just energy transition will be showcased at COP 26 where, after almost two decades, some of the latent defects are becoming visible, with electricity prices soaring and increased dependence on fossil fuels, while missing committed climate targets. Hopefully they will be brave enough to learn some lessons and develop something more effective and sustainable.

Sure, Germany may have had a knee-jerk reaction to Fukushima in 2011, but it seems their unfounded fears, but justified cautions for nuclear energy now seems greater than their commitments to fighting climate change.

Climate change mitigation is not only about cleaning up the power generation sector, but it can help clean up other sectors like transport and industrial, which are also major emitters of toxic pollution and GHGs into our environment, affecting air quality and health.

With nuclear energy being the top contributor to climate change mitigation, it is surprising that most of the resistance it receives comes from the fraternity who beats the drum for climate change.

While we welcome private participation in our energy sector, energy stakeholders should be responsible for ensuring that we plan and build sustainable energy systems that provide cleaner, more reliable, and affordable electricity for our country, including meaningful local employment during construction and operations. We should also ensure we don’t sacrifice the environment and our economy just for the sake of “transition”. South Africa needs a Just Energy Transition, not Just and Energy Transition.

As an energy industry, we should get over ourselves and our vested interests and realise that an accelerated energy transition is simply not possible without a balanced and sustainable energy portfolio, which should include nuclear energy for grid stability and achieving those climate goals. Weather-dependent renewables are too sluggish, the Energy Returned On Investment (EROI) is not viable and they will simply occupy most of our pristine landscapes.

Even a transition to electric cars will not make sense without access to clean, reliable, and affordable electricity or hydrogen, which nuclear energy delivers on demand. Charging an electric car with a coal-powered or unreliable grid, makes little environmental and economic sense for the owner, other than displacing pollution from the cities and into the country.

A just energy transition should therefore not only serve the interests of its purveyors but also serve the energy and development demands of our country. This has eluded us over the last two decades, in fact it’s gone backwards.

All the energy technologies we have at our disposal, which now includes hydrogen, should work in harmony while we carefully manage the transition toward cleaner and safer energies without disrupting the economy, our energy systems, and the environment. An optimal share of electricity generated would be: ⅓ Fossil Fuels (Clean Coal and Gas) - ⅓ Renewables (Hydro, Wind and Solar) - ⅓ Nuclear Energy (Large Scale and SMRs). This will provide the surplus energy needed for socio-economic expansion and prosperity for all.

In general, little is known about nuclear energy. The public has been purposely misled by embedded journalists on the value proposition of nuclear energy, and therefore not sure whether it has a vital role to play in our energy transition or not. This polarisation in the clean energy sector, has kept the world still dependent on fossil fuels for over 80% of its energy, which now seems to be increasing with unabated emissions.

Let’s change that skewed perception with a reality check and get nuclear energy back in the world’s energy transition, where it belongs, and give us a chance of achieving those ambitious goals by 2050.

South Africa’s dependence on coal power plants will naturally phase out with the retirement of 25’000 megawatts over the next two decades. That’s 1.25 gigawatts a year, starting from now. This should be ideally replaced by clean baseload energy at a pace and scale needed to balance our electricity supply and demand.

These retired power plant sites are ideal for gas to power plants or small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) of similar capacity, to complement existing infrastructures and optimise the labour resources. CO₂ emissions will be reduced by 50% with Gas and over 90% with SMRs. The toxic pollution that will be displaced will be a major health benefit for the people living there.

Some of the valuable attributes of nuclear energy include:

- It is the most reliable source of electricity on the grid.

- It delivers one of the cleanest sources of electricity available today.

- It is also ranked as the safest energy source per volume of electricity produced.

- It provides competitive electricity tariffs in the first 20 years of operation and the lowest cost of electricity for the remaining 60 years. (Koeberg R0.40/kWh)

- Nuclear power plants (NPP) deliver flexible, low-cost hybrid energy for electricity, process heat, desalination, and hydrogen. No fossil or battery backup needed.

- NPPs have the smallest footprint per installed capacity and electricity generated per year and therefore has a low impact on the environment.

- NPPs provide sustainable employment for our local industry and helps develop export industry industries.

- Nuclear Energy is delivered in large and small-scale packages to suit the specific energy requirements for central and distributed energy systems.

- NPPs built on proven designs by experienced EPC contractors, in partnership with the local industry, mitigates schedule & cost overruns and corruption.

- Nuclear energy projects are easy for finance through several low-interest funding models from the countries of origin.

- Private intensive energy users can finance part of the NPP construction in exchange for long-term, low-cost, clean hybrid energy off-take agreements.

- Nuclear power plants use very little fuel and therefore generate small amounts of waste. Decommissioning and waste management costs are included in the tariff and responsibly managed over the long term by the licensed entity.

The above attributes demonstrate nuclear energy’s contribution toward a just energy transition where energy security, environmental sustainability, access to affordable energy, and sustainable employment are achieved and maintained.

It’s time that the energy sector, both private and utility, unite in delivering sustainable energy policy that takes care of our environment while improving our quality of life. Nuclear energy’s important contribution to reaching our climate goals, alleviating poverty, and stabilising our energy systems will be featured at COP 26.

November 2021

South African Nuclear Build Platform:

A nuclear energy awareness and advocacy platform got our local industry.

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

Author: Des Muller – Spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform

South Africa has a relatively small but experienced nuclear industry, with some of its talents behind the development of local and international small modular reactors (SMRs) and the operation of some of the world’s most advanced nuclear power plants. We are also leaders in the field of nuclear medicine and research.

Although, over the last four to five decades, our nuclear industry has been geared toward operating and maintaining our Koeberg power and Safari research reactors, the earlier nuclear power procurement programs and Koeberg’s life extension projects have developed a local nuclear supply chain, seeing new entrants qualifying for these opportunities and building capacity.

During the 2007 nuclear build procurement programme, South Africa’s industry became well-aligned with the two international nuclear vendors and their EPC contractors. Being a vendor-controlled turn-key EPC solution, with a fully integrated local workforce, the risks experienced on our recent coal builds would have been mitigated. This remains the preferred contracting strategy for all nuclear builds today.

In 2007, the localisation target would have resulted in a local spend of over R300 billion, across our industrial supply chain, over 15 years. This would have prevented the collapse of our construction and manufacturing sectors and significantly reduced today’s unprecedented levels of unemployment. The local operation and maintenance spend over the following 60 years would have significantly changed the economies around those power plants, as we have seen with Koeberg. We can no longer deny our industry these opportunities. Today, we have several large-scale nuclear power plants, SMRs and potentially a Multi-Purpose Research Reactor in our procurement plans. While this provides us more options, it adds complexity and time to the procurement process, which can pose challenges for our local industry.

The large-scale Generation III nuclear power plants are through their ‘first of a kind’ (FOAK) phase, with many reactors successfully connected to the grid and achieving designed performance. Many new nuclear power plants and SMR demonstration units are under construction internationally, significantly reducing construction schedule and cost risks for Africa.

A country that is setting a great example for South Africa on localising a nuclear new build is the UK. Although a lot larger than our industry, we are similar in having last built nuclear power plants almost four decades ago. Through an effective Government-led industrial development program, an ambitious localisation target for the first nuclear power plant was achieved. The UK’s fleet build programme will result in significant reductions in build costs and schedule, reducing electricity tariffs while creating exponential growth in local employment. A nuclear build programme delivers far-reaching and long-term impact across the industry’s supply chain: from advanced education to apprenticeship training, with top jobs in planning, legal, financial, regulatory, engineering, manufacturing, and construction disciplines. The plant’s operating & maintenance functions that follow for the next 70 years, places nuclear energy as an industry leader in providing decent high-paying jobs and technical careers over the long-term.

A great opportunity for our Intensive Energy Users Industry, is to help capitalize nuclear power plants in exchange for high-capacity, long-term, competitive, and clean off-take agreements; thereby significantly reducing their CO₂footprints while securing reliable energy supplies. Nuclear energy’s low cost and reliability will result in sustained economic growth for South Africa.

It is encouraging to see the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) requesting a public hearing on the suitability of the Thyspunt site, in the Eastern Cape, for a nuclear power plant. This is how we can effectively deliver the growth and prosperity we have promised that region. Let’s Participate!

Although the barriers to entry to the nuclear industry are understandably high, the sheer size of the opportunity makes it worthwhile for our industry. Before one can be contracted, significant progress on the nuclear qualification and safety culture programs are required. As seen with developed countries, nuclear qualifications and capabilities will advance our industries toward high-tech markets and other safety-class industries, like aerospace and LNG, reducing imports.

The timing for the engagement of our local industry in a nuclear build is vital. A well-coordinated alignment will optimize localisation while mitigating risks for our industry. This also requires a well-coordinated procurement programme between our Government stakeholders and the many nuclear vendors and technologies. Our local industry should be engaged systematically through orientation, assessments, prequalification, and integration programs, which the South African Nuclear Build Platform coordinates.

Jennifer Granholm – United States Secretary of Energy. - “Let me say it loud and clear. Carbon-free nuclear power is an absolutely critical part of our decarbonization equation.”

Des Muller - Co-Spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

Author: Des Muller – Spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform

Over the last decade, South Africa’s “just transition” toward clean energy has put the Country’s economy at considerable risk by depriving it of energy security, industrial growth, and an effective transition from fossil fuels. South Africa has also not met its Paris Agreement goals on decarbonisation and, for consecutive years, has been recording an increase in carbon intensity. To meet these goals, South Africa needs to cut its CO₂ emissions by two thirds by 2050, which could deindustrialise our economy, if we continue getting this wrong. If Africa contributes less than 3% of global CO₂ emissions, then how did we get so drawn into these commitments, at the expense of our economy, when more appropriate and viable solutions are at hand? Due to South Africa’s aging generation assets, we should anyway see a rapid decline in coal-fired power generation in our energy mix over the next decade, with probably only 10 gigawatts remaining by 2050. Cleaner coal could extend its contribution but, like most technologies working outside their “comfort zones”, coal power could eventually price itself out of the market. Similarly, the high volumes of toxic waste being generated by renewable energies globally is putting pressure on this industry to recycle its waste, instead of sending it to landfill sites. Should these decommissioning and waste management costs be added into the energy production costs, as nuclear energy does, we could also see the cost of renewables escalating exponentially.

South Africa’s coal power decommissioning programme would reduce our generating capacity by over 1000 MW of baseload capacity per year over the next two decades. Eskom’s declining Energy Availability Factor (EAF) has already started this trend.

The DMRE’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2019) does not adequately address the replacement of base-load coal power, at a pace and scale we should be planning. The low generation capacity and intermittency of renewables has proven to be ineffective in arresting load shedding. And who backs up this intermittency when Eskom is unbundled? Therefore, beyond 2030, South Africa will be in chronic load-shedding unless an effective energy expansion programme is implemented.

A transition to a sustainable energy future is only possible through a balanced portfolio of energy solutions which deliver energy security, access to affordable energy, environmental sustainability, and socio-economic development (jobs), as its key criteria. All the generation technologies we have at South Africa’s disposal can collectively achieve this.

As demonstrated internationally, nuclear energy delivers all the above criteria on its own and should therefore be prominently featured in South Africa’s energy transition. Any technology can be made cleaner and more reliable with add-on technologies, but these additional costs tend to raise the cost per kWh, or their overall CO₂ emissions. Eskom should no longer subsidise these improvised technologies when more effective solutions are at hand.

Had we followed through with 2007’s 9.6GW nuclear procurement programme, we would have had an additional 5000 MW of baseload energy on the grid, producing 40TWh of emissions-free electricity per year, which would have again doubled in the next five years. This would have mitigated load-shedding, boosted our economy, and brought us a lot closer to our decarbonization goals.

The most effective way to successfully replace our retired coal fleet, is with clean baseload power like large-scale hydro or nuclear energy. As we have seen since 2007, once you have broken your baseload foundation, it needs the most effective remedy to fix it, unless one reduces demand through deindustrialisation and economic slowdown, which load-shedding ultimately does.

Nuclear energy is easily financed through various low-cost funding models. A great opportunity for our Intensive Energy Users Industry, is to help capitalize nuclear power plants in exchange for high-capacity, long-term, competitive, and clean off-take agreements, thereby significantly reducing their CO₂ footprints while securing reliable energy supplies.

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are also receiving a lot of attention and investment globally, making nuclear energy a great catalyst to kickstart our post-covid economies. South Africa is well positioned to establish an SMR manufacturing hub for domestic and African export projects. Given the capacity of our Grid, South Africa can implement both large and small-scale reactors, to achieve the economies of scale we need.

Our retired coal power plant sites would be ideal for SMRs. Their valuable infrastructures and available skilled resources, that can be upskilled and re-employed, are great enablers and will transform potential ghost towns into advanced clean energy hubs. By-products like process heat and green hydrogen can also add enormous value to that economy.

South Africa’s renewable energy, gas to power and own-generation programs, can also play a vital role in balancing our energy portfolio through distributed power systems at our load centres and beyond the grid, although environmentalists are starting to consider gas power generation, at 490g CO₂/kWh, a challenge. Like coal, this could pose a problem for financing and operating gas power for a nett-zero future. This leaves renewables (without batteries), hydro and nuclear energy as the leading low-carbon technologies for the future.

The Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Programme (RMIPPP) could have also considered upgrading our expensive, high-emissions diesel peakers to combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) and fuelled them with cheaper and cleaner liquified natural gas (LNG). This would have been an investment in our existing Eskom and IPP assets and effectively raised their production capacity from 15%+ to 50%+, providing an abundance of dispatchable power, on demand. LNG could soon become a domestic fuel source through Total’s explorations.

Only a robust and workable energy expansion plan would get South Africa on a transition path toward energy security, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity. It is concerning that this plan still eludes us after almost two decades, despite the valuable lessons we could learn from the global energy sector and the effort we have invested so far. Clearly South Africa needs to start taking more independent and workable advice.

Michael ShellenbergerClimate Journalist and Author: “The anti-nuclear lobby group, over the last two decades, has only successfully kept the share of fossil fuels in our global energy mix above 80%”. Are these unintended consequences?

Des Muller - Co-Spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform

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