Nuclear Power a Boon for South Africa?

More than 50 million people call the Republic of South Africa home. It is a country of demographic extremes, from native South Africans dwelling in the mountainous Great Escarpment to Zimbabwean refugees laboring in Pretoria to rich white businessmen typing in Johannesburg skyscrapers. One company links them all.

Armot Power StationEskom is the African public utility company. It supplies 95 percent of South Africa’s electricity and 45 percent of the entire continent’s. Approximately 90 percent of that power comes from coal, often trucked to coastal generation plants from deposits in the northeast Mpumalanga region. The other 10 percent is split rather evenly between hydropower and nuclear power, both viable options for alternative energy (learn more).

In the 1970s, Eskom, tired of trucking coal across the country, built a nuclear power generation facility at Koeberg and commissioned it in 1984. Eskom lip-synched promises to invest in future nuclear power plants like the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, but the buildings never appeared. Despite the 2011 Draft Integrated Electricity Resource Plan for South Africa – 2010 to 2030, the master plan for South Africa’s energy growth that called for 13.4 percent nuclear power by 2030, no concrete foundations have been laid. In 2011, Eskom suggested that half of the required 40 gigawatts of new domestic power by 2025 should come from nuclear.

But 2030 is far away, too far, for the residents of South Africa lighting candles in their apartments. The national grid has no “reserve margin.” Generation facilities have to toil every hour every day to keep up with demand. If one plant needs maintenance—well, it must wait.

Eskom waited too long. Its policy of “deferred maintenance” snowballed until early 2015 when the avalanche broke loose. As plant after plant broke down, including the Koeberg nuclear plant, Eskom declared a grid emergency and instituted a policy of rolling blackouts called “load-shedding.” These regional blackouts stabilize the overworked grid. Industrial users have been asked to curb electricity usage by 10 percent; large-scale users by 30 percent.

South Africa needs power. But with the infrastructure overloaded, accessible coal running out, and all the rivers dammed, perhaps only nuclear power can save South Africa.

But there are those who point to Chernobyl, to Three Mile Island, and to Fukushima, and they protest. How will the radioactive waste be stored? What about pollution? Safety? Meltdowns?

A June 2012 article from Forbes titled, “How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt?” ranked coal as the worst culprit of all major energy sources. Counting statistics and not headlines, nuclear power has shown across six decades of worldwide commercial use in 33 countries that it is safe and becoming safer.

Meanwhile, coal-fired generation plants produce nitrous oxides, toxic mercury compounds, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide—components of greenhouse gases, acid rain, and smog. Nuclear plants emit virtually none of this gunk. Some coal byproducts are, in fact, more radioactive than nuclear waste, and the often vilified nuclear “smokestacks” are nothing but hyperboloid cooling towers that belch steam. Nuclear power’s worst crime is its association with uranium mining, something similar to mining coal or drilling for natural gas. Concerns about rogue radioactivity belong in the same category as the “Duck and Cover” civil defense videos from the 1950s teaching American schoolchildren how to survive the blast from a Soviet nuclear warhead.

Eskom’s grid is balanced on pointe. About 23 percent of Eskom’s 42,500 megawatts of capacity have been out of service during 2015. One uptick in the costs of diesel, one blindside generator failure, and the grid collapses. South Africa deserves an energy mix as diverse as its population. Why not clean, potent nuclear power? – By – Brandon Engel