Why is the public so concerned about new nuclear power stations in SA?

July 14th, 2016, Published in Articles: Energize


Speaking at Eskom’s integrated results presentation to the media recently, Brian Molefe, the power utility’s chief executive officer, said that he was surprised and somewhat disappointed that while countries such as the UK, France and the US all have large amounts of electricity from nuclear power stations, Africa has only two relatively small nuclear reactors, both of which are located in South Africa.

Roger Lilley

Roger Lilley

Molefe invited the media to explain why the public is negative about nuclear power stations, and asked what the public is afraid of.

Based on some of Molefe’s comments at the media briefing, it seems the utility’s CEO believes that South Africans are afraid of nuclear technology. I would disagree. I think South Africans are not afraid of adopting new technologies as can be attested to by the many new technologies in use every day.

Rather, I believe the South African public is wary of ultra-expensive projects which seem to tempt those who can to indulge in corrupt activities at the cost of the man in the street.

For reasons which have not been properly explained, negotiations pertaining to the purchase of equipment for the building of a nuclear power station are held behind closed doors and not made available to the public. The total cost of the proposed nuclear power stations to generate an additional 9600 MW in South Africa has not been revealed. As a result, speculations regarding the cost vary widely between R0,5- and R1,2-trillion.

Secrecy about costs tends to make people suspicious that they will end up paying far more than necessary for this additional electricity.

Reports from previous large projects, such as the new football stadia which were built for the 2010 soccer world cup, have revealed corruption of one form or another resulting in serious cost over-runs.

Another contributing factor comes from Eskom itself. The power utility has shown the public, in the case of both Medupi and Kusile, that it is incapable of completing large new-build power stations on time or on budget.

In April 2007, Medupi’s cost was put at R69,1-billion. By May 2013 it had risen to R105-billion, and it has since rocketed to R145-billion (according to the figures presented at Eskom’s integrated results meeting in July 2016), excluding fluegas desulphurisation (FGD) plant and interest during construction (IDC). Similarly, Kusile’s cost has escalated from R80,6-billion in April 2007 to R118,5-billion in May 2013 and to R161,4-billion in July 2016, including FGD but excluding IDC. See page 12 for details.

Although the power utility can explain why the two new coal-fired power stations are late and over-budget, and give plausible reasons and find people and/or companies to blame, it is quite natural for the public to believe that new nuclear power stations will also be late and excessively over-budget.

Furthermore, some people question why the country needs this much extra generation, having become confused by the hype surrounding the government’s renewable energy independent power producers’ procurement programme (REIPPPP), the drive for energy efficiency, and the power utility’s frequent calls for the country to “live lightly”.

Recently, Eskom announced that it might invest in extending the life of four of its older coal-fired power stations, which could also call into question the need of additional new power stations.

The power utility announced in June this year that within the next five years, overall capacity will increase from the current 44 087 MW to 52 589 MW. The sources of this extra power were identified as the Medupi, Kusile and Ingula new-build power stations. The announcement included the statement “the additional capacity gained will fuel the South African economy which augers well for economic development”.

Perhaps because the public has heard such statements from Eskom it is understandable that it will question why an additional
9600 MW is needed. That, coupled with reports of corruption and dishonesty associated with other large projects, and exacerbated by the shroud of secrecy that surrounds nuclear projects, as well as the seeming inability of the power utility to complete existing large-scale projects on time and on budget, has created a resistance in the minds of many to the idea of new nuclear power stations for South Africa.

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  • Ben Franklin

    The introductory statement by Eskom — that Africa’s nuclear reactors are small by world standards — is clearly incorrect.

    As http://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/Nuclear-Statistics/World-Statistics/World-Nuclear-Power-Plants-in-Operation clearly shows, the two 930 MW Koeberg reactors are well above both the median and mean size of world reactors.

    Bigger than 14 out of 15 UK reactors, than the majority of French and US reactors, and all but one of the operational Russian reactors.

  • Ben Franklin

    In the light of the vast delays, and Eskom’s junk status, it would be most informative to know the interest during construction. Would this not easily double the costs R141 billion for Medupi, and the R161 billion for Kusile?

  • Ben Franklin

    The authoritative and highly respected Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) of Palo Alto, California now estimates the overnight costs of new nuclear power at just over $6 per watt. This overnight cost excludes interest during construction (IDC). http://www.bdlive.co.za/economy/2016/07/15/energy-plan-stalls-on-cost-of-nuclear

    With an optimistic exchange rate of R15 per dollar, this implies 9600 000 000 x 6 x 15 = R0.864 trillion rand for the proposed nuclear build program, PLUS IDC. Experience in other countries indicate that in nuclear build programs, IDC and needed modifications tend to double or triple the total cost.

    Thus R1.728 to R2.592 trillion rand may be a more realistic estimate for the proposed nuclear build than that quoted above.