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  • Corbyn Muller

A Just and Sustainable Energy Transition for SA

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.


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