It is ironic that just as the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow concluded a few weeks ago, electricity prices soared as Europe prepared for a bitterly cold winter.
It is an abject lesson about the folly of considering renewable energy as the main solution to our energy problems. African countries are being asked to sacrifice their fossil fuel industries just as the continent emerges from poverty.
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Africa is understandably asked to shoulder a disproportionate burden from climate damage inflicted by the world’s largest economies, particularly the United States and China.
There is another solution gaining ground in Africa that ticks all the boxes and that is nuclear power: Africa’s only nuclear power plant, Koeberg, has produced the cheapest, cleanest and most reliable electricity in South Africa in its 60-year life.
The main objections to nuclear power are safety and cost. Some argue that there is a “potential” for corruption, citing the aborted nuclear power procurement program of five years ago as a cautionary tale.
One could easily drop that same bomb against any of the energy solutions that are being offered as solutions to our energy crisis. As we have seen in SA, corruption is never far from the surface and is agnostic as to the type of energy that is promoted. We must protect ourselves against corruption from any source, be it renewable, gas, coal or nuclear.
Climate change mitigation is not just about cleaning up the power generation sector, but must include other sectors such as transportation and industrial, which are also important emitters of toxic pollution and greenhouse gases in our environment, which that affects air quality.
Given that nuclear power is the largest contributor to climate change mitigation, it is surprising that most of the resistance it receives comes from the fraternity drumming for climate change.
While we welcome private participation in our energy sector, stakeholders must be held accountable 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 the construction and operations. We must also make sure that we don’t sacrifice the environment and our economy just for the sake of “transition.”
As an energy industry, we must overcome ourselves and our vested interests and realize that an accelerated just energy transition is simply not possible without a balanced and sustainable energy portfolio, which should include nuclear power to stably achieve our climate goals. .
Climate-dependent terrestrial renewable energies alone are ineffective and require additives that substantially increase cost and CO₂ emissions.
They have the lowest return on energy investment (EROI), and require the most infrastructure and land per unit of electricity produced.
Even a transition to electric cars will be meaningless without access to clean, reliable and affordable electricity or hydrogen, which nuclear power supplies on demand.
Charging an electric car with a coal-fired or unreliable grid makes little environmental and economic sense for the owner, other than shifting pollution from the cities to the countryside.
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A just energy transition must not only serve the interests of its suppliers, but also the energy demands and economic interests of our country.
Given the persistence of our dire energy situation after more than a decade, it appears that we have failed miserably.
All the energy technologies available to us, which now include hydrogen, should work in harmony as we carefully manage the transition to cleaner and safer energy without disrupting the economy, our energy systems and the environment.
In general, little is known about nuclear energy. The public has also been misled about the nuclear power value proposition for South Africa and is therefore not sure whether it has a role to play in our energy transition or not. This polarization in the clean energy sector has kept the world dependent on fossil fuels for more than 80% of its energy needs, which appears to be increasing with emissions unabated.
So let’s change that skewed perception with reality and bring nuclear power back in the world’s just energy transition and give it a chance to achieve those net zero goals by 2050.
Progressive elimination of carbon
South Africa’s dependence on coal-fired power plants will naturally disappear with the withdrawal of 25,000 megawatts over the next two decades. That’s 1.25 gigawatts a year, as of now.
Ideally this should be replaced by clean baseload power at the rate and scale we need if we are to catch up and maintain our energy security.
Ideally, these retired coal power plants should be replaced by small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) or gas power plants of similar production capacity.
Existing infrastructures and workforce resources will be seamlessly combined with these advanced technologies and the Industry 4.0 opportunity for career development.
CO₂ and toxic emissions will be drastically reduced in the region and the quality of life for the people living there will improve.
Some of the valuable attributes of nuclear power include:
- It is the most reliable source of electricity with an energy availability factor of more than 90%;
- It offers one of the cleanest sources of electricity available today, with CO₂ emissions of less than 15 g per kilowatt hour (kWh);
- It is also ranked as the safest source of energy per unit of electricity produced;
- Provides competitive electricity rates for the first 20 years of operation and the lowest cost of electricity for the remaining 60 years. Koeberg is proof of this;
- Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) deliver flexible, low-cost hybrid power for the production of electricity, heat, desalination, and hydrogen, without the need for fossils or backup batteries;
- Nuclear power plants have the smallest footprint and the lowest infrastructure requirements for installed capacity and electricity generated, and therefore have the least environmental impact;
- Nuclear power plants provide sustainable employment in a wide range of local industries, also opening up South Africa to an export industry;
- Nuclear power plants come in large and small-scale packages to suit the specific energy needs of centralized and distributed power systems;
- Nuclear power plants built on proven designs by experienced engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractors, in partnership with local industry, mitigate cost overruns and corruption opportunities;
- Nuclear power infrastructure is easy to finance through various low-interest source country financing models;
- Private energy-intensive users can finance part of the construction of a nuclear power plant in exchange for long-term low-CO₂ and competitive hybrid power purchase agreements; and
- Nuclear power plants use very little fuel and therefore generate small amounts of waste. Dismantling and waste management costs are included in the rate and are managed responsibly in the long term. Waste can even be reprocessed into advanced NPP fuels, reducing waste by 10%.
These attributes demonstrate the valuable contribution of nuclear power to an energy transition where energy security, environmental sustainability, reliable access to affordable energy, and sustainable employment come with the package.
The energy sector, both private and public services, must come together to offer sustainable energy policies that take care of our environment and improve our quality of life through abundance of energy.
COP26 and the recent World Nuclear Expo in Paris highlighted the important role of nuclear energy in achieving our climate goals, alleviating poverty and stabilizing our energy systems. Let’s make it happen.
Des Muller is a spokesperson for SA Nuclear Build Platform.