South Africa: Nuclear Energy: The Light And Dark Sides

Last Updated: 26 April 2012
Article by Happy Masondo

The Revised Balanced Scenario (RBS) set out in the Integrated Resource Plan 2010 to 2030 (IRP2), states that in addition to all existing and committed power plants, it is necessary for security of power supply in South Africa to also include a nuclear fleet of 9,6 GW or 9 600 MW amongst other alternative forms of energy. According to Yelland, "the final Policy Adjusted IRP2010 increased the new generation capacity build from 52 248MW proposed in the RBS to 56 359MW".

The projections for nuclear are now increased from 9.6GW / 9 600MW to 11.4GW / 11 400MW. Although the IRP2 is intended to be subject to periodic review and adjustment, since its publication in October 2010, the Department of Energy (DOE) has not indicated any desire to amend the projections in the IRP2 in respect of the nuclear fleet. The South African nuclear energy policy does not cover any non-electricity related applications of nuclear technology. This is the light side of nuclear energy used by many countries as dependable sources of electricity amongst other forms of alternative energy.

In 2010, Japan "got 30% of its electricity from nuclear plants."2 It is believed that Japan had previously expected its use of nuclear energy to increase somewhat. The Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdown of the nuclear plants in Japan in March 2011 has since elicited tremendous antinuclear campaigns all over the world. Following the Fukushima Dai-ichi tragic end of some of Japan's nuclear plants, "now the share of nuclear power to Japan's energy mix is more likely to shrink, and it could just vanish altogether."3 This unfortunate outcome casts a shadow over the otherwise certain security of supply manifested in Japan during 2010. Despite this, however, there are still countries in the world factoring the existence of a nuclear fleet into their projections for the future supply of electricity as opposed to the weapons-applicable nuclear technology. South Africa is one such country.

Nuclear energy in South Africa

Although it is clear from the above that until March 2011 countries such as Japan got a significant portion of their electricity supply from nuclear plants, this reliance on nuclear for electricity is somewhat under threat. South Africa, however, appears to be on a path to increase its new generation capacity build and to base its security of power on a nuclear fleet, amongst other alternative forms of energy. Long before the anti-nuclear sentiments now pervasive in the world market, the South African Nuclear Corporation Limited (Necsa) was established under the Nuclear Energy Act 46 of 1999 (the Act). Necsa is a state-owned company endowed with the primary function of being an anchor for nuclear energy research, development and innovation in South Africa.

In addition to its legislative mandate, Necsa is also governed by the provisions of the Nuclear Energy Policy, which directs NECSA to develop viable nuclear fuel cycle operations for South Africa. The development of viable nuclear fuel operations in South Africa has become increasingly important in light of the energy crisis faced by the country. At this juncture, establishing the correct mix of energy sources is critical to ensuring the security of supply over the long term. Necsa continues to play a fundamental role in applying its experience and expertise to provide insight to the DOE, amongst other government departments, on the nuclear capacity build programme for South Africa.

According to the internal Necsa writings and documents, Necsa is also responsible for managing certain institutional obligations of South Africa, as delegated by the Minister of Energy, in respect of international agreements, or in the national or public interest, concerning matters arising from or otherwise involving the use of nuclear energy. These include, amongst others: decommissioning and decontamination of previous strategic nuclear facilities; management of nuclear waste disposal on a national basis; and implementation and execution of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Safeguards Agreement, the African Cooperative Agreement, the Treaty of Pelindaba and any other treaty, agreement or protocol.

Nuclear safety

Unsurprisingly, the anti-nuclear sentiment has come about as a result of safety concerns and the danger or the potential of meltdown as witnessed in Fukushima Dai-ichi, in the north-east of Tokyo, Japan 2011. In Hamakoa, in the south-west of Japan, there are three nuclear reactors which remain shut down until such time that Japan's Chubu Electric Power (Chubu) can secure the nuclear reactors and operate them safely. According to Morton, "[t]he governing principle of nuclear safety is 'defense in depth.' Seek first to prevent failure, then to correct failures not prevented, then to control the consequences of failure, then to deal with emergencies beyond normal control."

There are many measures that can be taken and were in fact taken to prevent the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdown, however there are also many natural and other causes that could not be controlled. It is reported that the reactors at Fukushima were of an old design and the risks that they faced had not been adequately analysed. In addition, it would appear that the operating company was poorly regulated, the operators made several mistakes and that they did not possess a full view of what was going on. Consequently, "[t]he need to keep questioning things - from the details of maintenance procedures to one's sense of the worst that could go wrong - is at the heart of a successful safety culture."

In South Africa, "the wisdom of including nuclear generation in a future build programme is being questioned." The DOE, Necsa and other energy stakeholders in South Africa will have to focus their efforts on the best nuclear technology, such as generation IV reactors, with fail safe mechanisms built into the nuclear energy build programme in order to earn the public confidence. Fundamental to the authorities decrying the potential skepticism that might surround the light side of nuclear energy is transparency and accountability to the public.

On the other hand, scholars such as Professor Mulder are of the view that although "thorium was recognised as the primary alternative to uranium at the dawn of the nuclear energy age,...earlier generations preferred the use of uranium, as it allowed the pioneering nuclear nations to produce weapons-grade material." The bias towards uranium go against the advantages of thorium, including the fact that "unlike fossil-fuelled energy solutions, the thorium reactors do not emit CO2, making it a viable environmental choice."

Building nuclear weapons

In contrast to the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity, there are countries which have nuclear programmes that are not entirely peaceful programmes. It is reported that "Iran started exploring paths to nuclear weaponry before the fall of the shah in 1979. Ten years ago the outside world learned of the plants it was building to provide 'heavy' water (used in reactors that produce plutonium) and enriched uranium, which is necessary for some types of nuclear reactor, but also for nuclear weapons." The presence of nuclear weapons any where in the world, manifests a dark side of nuclear energy to unleash untold damage in the world.

Those countries with nuclear weaponry will continue to pose a threat against any country in the world. Nuclear proliferation constitutes the dark side of nuclear energy by those nations committed to keeping their "options open" to use nuclear weapons.

Conclusion

In the final policy adjusted IRP2, for the period from 2010 to 2030, the projected nuclear capacity will be well over 23% of the total electricity capacity in South Africa. It is imperative to ensure that the latest and safest nuclear technology is used for the nuclear build programme. The unfortunate experiences at Fukushima Dai-ichi should provide invaluable lessons on the extent of the vigilance that is required to maintain the safety of the nuclear fleet. The South African authorities have to put in place measures which will not only be "fail safe" but will also address unnatural causes that could pose any danger to the nuclear fleet and the communities living in close proximity thereto.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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