Mantashe talks up ‘affordable’ nuclear plans

Energy minister Gwede Mantashe says that South Africa will pursue “affordable” nuclear builds in line with the government’s energy plans.

Speaking to Reuters, Mantashe said that nuclear energy as part of the country’s future energy mix has always been on the table.

“The fact that we suspected corruption (in the previously floated Russia deal) doesn’t mean that nuclear is irrelevant for the country in 2019,” he said.

“It comes back to a resolution we took as a government: not going big bang into nuclear, but going at a pace and price that the country can afford. Go modular, go at a pace and price that the country can afford,” Mantashe said.

Nuclear energy emerged as a major topic in the latter years of the Jacob Zuma administration, becoming a point of contention as the South African government appeared to hurriedly push through a R1 trillion-plus nuclear energy plan that the country could simply not afford.

The former president wanted to build as many as eight nuclear reactors, in partnership with Russian nuclear energy groups, which would have the capacity to generate 9,600 megawatts of energy.

However, the ANC, under president Cyril Ramaphosa, all but abandoned those plans when he took control of the party, switching to a harder push for renewable energy in its place.

In the party’s 2019 national election manifesto, nary a mention was made of nuclear energy as part of the country’s future energy mix, with the party instead promising to promote renewables, bring Eskom into the market as a key player in that sector, and to dedicate resources to upskilling and training people to deal with the renewable energy future.

Nuclear energy also took a back seat in the country’s draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) published in 2018, in favour of renewable energy.

According to the document published by the Department of Energy, while nuclear energy is still ‘on the table’ – in that it is acknowledged as part of the country’s current and future energy mix as recorded in the National Development Plan – it’s not something that will be looked at any time soon.

The document explicitly states that “the role of nuclear in the energy mix and calls for a thorough investigation of the implications of nuclear energy, including its costs; financing options; institutional arrangements; safety; environmental costs and benefits; localisation and employment opportunities; and uranium-enrichment and fuel-fabrication possibilities”.

In the forward planning, South Africa’s current nuclear power station at Koeberg is expected to reach end-of-life by 2047, taking 1,800MW of power off the grid. While provision is made for new nuclear capacity around 2040, the plan expects coal and nuclear energy to make up less than 50% of the energy mix by 2050.

According to Mantashe, no timelines for any nuclear build can be given until the IRP is approved.

Mantashe said the IRP makes provision for “modular nuclear technology”, adding that nuclear would compete with other power sources to replace energy capacity which will be decommissioned in the medium to long term.

Read: ANC drops Zuma’s nuclear plans – and embraces renewable energy instead

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Mantashe talks up ‘affordable’ nuclear plans