Nuclear reactions

October 10th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize, Featured: EE Publishers


The recent announcement of the signing of an agreement between the South African government and the Russian nuclear company Rosatom has created a flood of speculation and comment about the future of nuclear power generation in this country.

Mike Rycroft

Mike Rycroft

The official announcement describes the deal as an “intergovernmental agreement on strategic partnership and cooperation in nuclear energy and industry” and states that “the agreement lays the foundation for the large-scale nuclear power plants (NPP) procurement and development programme of South Africa based on the construction in SA of new nuclear power plants with Russian VVER reactors with total installed capacity of up to 9,6 GW (up to 8 NPP units)”. Later announcements said that the agreement was not exclusive but that similar agreements would be signed with other vendors in the nuclear industry. The details of the agreement remain secret and this has led to wide speculation about this and other secret nuclear agreements between the government and the Russian federation.

One thing certain: The government intends to go ahead with a nuclear power generation programme. The only question is when, with which supplier and at what cost. A lot of preparatory activity has been going on in the background, without much publicity. The interdepartmental team has been at work, and we have had visits from the international atomic energy agency and other bodies Nuclear power has always been part of the IRP2010 and updated versions, although pushed far into the future.

Considering this, there is a need to prepare and develop skills to make such a programme possible. Failure of the pebble bed reactor programme in this country placed nuclear skills on hold. Despite claims that the nuclear power industry is grinding to a halt, development is continuing in other countries on small reactors and advanced nuclear processes using other fuels and other designs of reactors. Cooperation agreements with other parties are thus essential.

It has been asked why the government is going ahead with a programme which is purported to be too expensive, dangerous and part of a dying industry. It all comes down to a question of accountability. Government has taken responsibility for the energy programme in South Africa and as such is accountable for ensuring the quality and security of electricity supply for the future. In drawing up a programme of action, the accountable body must evaluate all possibilities and risks, and it would be prudent then to incorporate in the programme a significant portion of a proven technology which can be relied on to deliver secure energy. At the same time there are political commitments to meet, such as reducing the use of carbon based fuels. Nuclear power is an answer to these challenges.

The announcement has been met with a barrage of claims from numerous political, social and other sources on alternative sources of energy and how the future demand could be met using various other schemes. Yet it must be remembered that none of the parties making these claims will ever be required to deliver against them or be held accountable for their accuracy. The government will be held accountable and can be justified in hedging their bets on the future.

Discounting the protests from those who are fundamentally opposed to all things nuclear, what are the valid objections to the use of nuclear technology? The primary concern seems to be cost, focussed on the capital cost of construction, which is uncertain, and depending on estimates ranges from R600-billion to over R1000-billion. Nuclear power is expensive to construct, one of the reasons being the very high safety standards enforced and the high quality of components required to ensure that safety. High quality means longer life however, with estimates ranging from 60 to 100 years in some cases. There is maybe a psychological barrier to investing in something which is going to benefit future generations longer than our own, especially when compared to the construction cost of some renewables which deliver short term returns but have a relative short lifespan.

What options are open if generation from coal is to be reduced? There are only nuclear and renewables. One of the claims being made is that renewable sources could be used instead of nuclear. Discounting imported hydro as high risk, and a small percentage of biofuels, we are left with wind and solar as potential alternatives to nuclear. Many claims have been made for both technologies, although known to be highly variable and unable to deliver at an acceptable availability.  The fundamental reason is that renewables are not controlled by human actions but by nature, and many of the claims are based on the assumed benevolence of nature. It does well to remember that nature is not benevolent.

In a system of interconnected independently owned variable resources, subject to the vagaries of nature, who is accountable for the level of output and security of supply? It is fairly certain that the climate of this planet is changing, for whatever reason, and we are likely to see changes in weather, the extent and nature of which is uncertain. Neither the government nor owners and operators of the plant can be held accountable for changes in performance if weather patterns change. This is a risk borne by the customer, not the provider.

One of the emerging arguments offered against nuclear is that baseload generation is unnecessary. This leads to an interesting possibility of changes in consumption patterns from demand driven generation to availability driven consumption, a situation which existed prior to the industrial age. The miller ground corn when the wind was available to turn the windmill, or when sufficient water flowed in the river.

The final question of course is who is going to fund this programme? The cost seems to be beyond the ability of either Eskom or the government. The REIPP programme is going ahead with private financing, and one could reasonably assume that future expansion of the programme will be privately financed as well. Private financing of the nuclear build programme seems to be the only option.

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