Why South Africa is turning to nuclear energy to plug its power shortage

Coal is the single most valuable export commodity, making it harder for the country to wean itself off the fuel

Vapour rises from the cooling towers of the Sasol Ltd. Secunda coal-to-liquids plant in Mpumalanga, South Africa, on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. At 56.5 million tons of greenhouse gases a year, Secunda's emissions exceed the individual totals of more than 100 countries, including Norway and Portugal, according to the Global Carbon Atlas. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

South Africa is looking to step up its power generation capacity and commission new coal and nuclear plants as it deals with an energy crisis.

Scheduled power cuts, or "load shedding" as national electricity utility Eskom calls it, have darkened homes and shut down industries for up to nine hours a day during the past week.

South Africa is not the only country grappling with power shortages; India and China too are dealing with an energy crunch. However, while these are largely due to the shortage of coal, South Africa’s power crisis stems from a fleet of ageing coal power stations that are prone to breakdowns.

South Africa is one of the world’s highest emitters of carbon and greenhouse gasses
Ayodele Odusola UNDP representative

Environmentalists have been pushing to transition to clean energy to solve the country’s energy crisis but Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe told the Joburg Indaba mining conference last week that both new coal and nuclear plants will be part of future plans.

“I am not saying coal for ever,” Mr Mantashe said. “I am saying let us manage our transition step by step, rather than being emotional. We are not a developed economy. We do not have all alternative sources of electricity.”

Mr Mantashe’s words came as a disappointment to many who were hoping the government was headed exclusively towards wind and solar.

“South Africa is one of the world’s highest emitters of carbon and greenhouse gasses,” said Ayodele Odusola, Resident Representative for the UN Development Programme in South Africa.

The country is at a similar development level to economies such as India, Vietnam and Mexico, which had been making strides to move away from fossil-based energy.

“I strongly believe South Africa can transition from fossil to renewable energy,” Mr Odusola said.

For the ruling African National Congress, it is not so simple. The country is struggling with record unemployment, with more than a third of its workforce sitting at home, and coal is the single largest employer.

About 90,000 workers depend on the coal industry, and they, in turn, support as many as half a million people, according to government statistics. “A transfer of skills to coal workers, preparing them for work in the renewable industry would be required,” Mr Odusola said.

South Africa is also a major coal exporter, sending about 80 million tonnes abroad annually, to customers such as Pakistan and India. Coal is also the single most valuable export commodity, bringing in revenue of 51 billion rand ($3.5bn) in 2019, industry figures show.

Still, the country is officially committed to reducing emissions amid plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. One way to do this would be to build more nuclear plants, Mr Mantashe said.

Renewable generation cannot be relied on alone because of the large amount of downtime experienced by solar and wind.

“Nuclear is going to be the saviour because renewables have no baseload,” he said while speaking at the same event.

South Africa already has the continent’s only operating nuclear power plant, outside Cape Town, that has been running since the early 1980s.

“Nuclear will be part of South Africa’s climate change mitigation,” said Zizamele Mbambo, deputy head of nuclear at the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.

He said it was government’s plan to procure nuclear power at a scale and pace the country can afford.

“It is a ‘no regret’ option. We expect the procurement process to begin early next year and be completed by 2024.”

Apart from the usual objections to nuclear energy, the technology has an especially bad rap in the country as it is also associated with an attempt to irregularly procure a fleet of nuclear plants from Russia, during the administration of former president Jacob Zuma.

The deal, which would have cost the country $76bn, was personally signed by Mr Zuma and Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2014. However, it was overturned in court in 2017, after it was found to have bypassed the country’s large capital procurement processes.

A subsequent judicial commission of inquiry into corruption related to the Zuma years heard that the Russian deal had under-calculated the cost to South Africa and that the eventual bill would have ended up as high as $100bn.

However, Mr Mbambo believes that the nuclear procurement programme would be different this time around.

“The process will be transparent and cost competitive,” he said.

Updated: October 18, 2021, 4:30 AM