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Govt sets sights on nuclear amid environmental opposition

Read time 4min 20sec

Environmental groups are calling on energy minister Gwede Mantashe to prioritise renewable energy as the energy department looks to expand SA’s nuclear power.

Yesterday, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy published the request for information (RFI) in respect of the commencement of preparations for a nuclear build programme to the extent of 2 500MW.

In a statement, the department says given the long lead-time of building additional new nuclear capacity, upfront planning is necessary for security of energy supply to society into the future.

It notes the RFI is intended to commence the departmental preparatory work to develop plans for a future nuclear energy build programme.

According to the department, this is in line with the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2019 decision eight which states the department will “commence preparations for a nuclear build programme at a pace and scale that the country can afford because it is a no-regret option in the long term”.

This will enable the department to gain insight into the cost of the programme, possible ownership structures, cost recovery, the end-user cost and sustainability of the programme.

SA’s bid to fast-track a nuclear deal was dealt a blow in 2017 after civic organisations, the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg claimed another court victory to stop the then minister of energy David Mahlobo pursuing the deal, as well as government and Eskom from commencing a tender process.

The deal was reportedly set to cost SA R1 trillion.

Breach of judgement

SA’s sole nuclear power plant Koeberg is currently the only one on the entire African continent. It is located 30km north of Cape Town, near Melkbosstrand on the west coast of South Africa. Koeberg is owned and operated by the country's only national electricity supplier, Eskom.

South Africa has two nuclear reactors at Koeberg generating 5% of the country’s electricity.

In a recent urgent letter to Mantashe, Earthlife and SAFCEI caution the minister that no new nuclear programme can go ahead, unless the proper procedures are adhered to.

On commencing with the procurement process for a 2 500MW new nuclear power programme, Earthlife and SAFCEI’s attorney Adrian Pole says not only would this be in clear breach of the judgement handed down by the Western Cape High Court on 26 April 2017 halting former president Jacob Zuma’s nuclear deal, but it would also fly in the face of a sworn undertaking from then-energy minister Mahlobo in November 2017.

He says: “In court papers filed on his behalf, Mahlobo confirmed on oath that he appreciated that his failure to comply with the judgement would be unlawful and would result in contempt of court proceedings being instituted against him.

“The minister also undertook to act in accordance with the judgement, to take no steps, including the issuing of an RFI, in the absence of a lawful S34 nuclear determination. In our view, the current minister of energy is also bound by this undertaking,” adds Pole.

Earthlife and SAFCEI question the desirability of, and need for, any new nuclear power programme.

Post-COVID-19 energy needs

The organisations encourage Mantashe and the energy department to rather focus on renewable energy options, which they believe are better suited to sustainably meeting SA’s energy needs in a post-COVID SA while also addressing the climate emergency.

“The Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters – which still remain problematic today – remind us of the significant dangers of nuclear power,” says Earthlife’s Makoma Lekalakala.

“And, when we factor-in the costs of nuclear fuel, construction, radioactive waste management and end-of-life decommissioning, nuclear power stations ultimately end-up producing very expensive electricity. Rather than burdening current and future generations of South Africans with higher electricity costs and inter-generational nuclear cost burdens, the department should be focusing on encouraging more investment in agile renewable energy sources.

“This approach could also greatly benefit previously disadvantaged communities, if government would promote a greater share in the ownership of and the benefits derived from this market.”

Says SAFCEI’s Francesca de Gasparis: “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant negative impact on South Africa’s economy, and as a result, electricity demand has plunged by roughly one-third.

“Even if projected electricity demand post-COVID requires investment in new generation capacity in the short and medium term, nuclear energy cannot meet this need given the long lead-in time (often a decade or longer, assuming no delays).

“We encourage the energy department to rather focus on creating an enabling environment for more renewable sources that can deliver affordable energy in the short and medium terms, while also helping to ensure a just energy transition,” De Gasparis concludes.

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