South Africa may soon count as both old and new nuclear power. Nuclear power was a substantial commitment of the apartheid government, which ruled the country on behalf of the white minority between 1948 and 1994.

Under apartheid rule, engineers built nuclear capacity in nuclear fuel production, a weapons programme, uranium enrichment, and research since the 1950s. The programme came with a high cost, as large parts of the electricity produced from the reactor went into fuel and uranium production (Marquard 2006). The remainders of this programme are Africa’s only commercial nuclear plant in Koeberg outside Cape Town, a research reactor in Pelindaba near Pretoria, a state-owned nuclear cooperation, a regulator, and a coalition of nuclear engineers.

The African National Congress (ANC) actively opposed nuclear power in its role of a liberation movement and during its early days as a ruling party (ANC 1994). This position changed gradually, as the scientist and technicians involved in the pro-nuclear coalition continued pushing for a continuation of nuclear energy.

The pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) was used in the ANC’s first nuclear programme. The programme aimed to commercialize a German licensed small reactor design, which did not succeed in a research and development (R&D) programme in Germany and lost public funding in 1998 (BMU 2006). The main problem with the pebble bed reactor was that it created very high temperatures at its core, which could not safely transform into process heat. The temperatures inside the reactor could only be estimated, as the movement of the pebbles inside the reactor destroyed all measuring devices (Moormann 2008). South African and German scientists convinced the ANC government to fund the technology from 1993 until 2010. The PBMR received more than ZAR10 billion of public funding, accounting for one-third of the Department of Trade and Industry’s R&D budget (Creamer 2010; Hogan 2010).

The PMBR programme originally envisioned producing electricity in smaller reactors than pricy pressurized water reactor (PWR) plants like Koeberg. Yet, it became part of a wider ‘nuclear policy’ published in 2008, which aimed to revive the manufacturing processes including uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel production. The policy framework aimed to build new PWR plants by 2015 and create more than 10,000 new jobs in the industry (DME 2008).

The release of the nuclear policy coincided with the world’s financial crisis and severe shortages in electricity supply. International rating companies evaluated South Africa’s utility Eskom’s financial prospects negatively, which did not correspond with the government’s ambition to acquire new nuclear power plants, ‘owned and operated’ through Eskom (DME 2008).

In 2011, the ANC restated its plans for the nuclear build programme three days after the accidents in Fukushima. The nuclear build programme suggests building six nuclear plants to add 9.6 GW of capacity to the current national capacity of about 40 GW. The programme refers to the country’s electricity plan, the integrated resource plan (IRP), that outlines South Africa’s electricity mix 2030. The IRP was the first integrated, participative plan for the future of the electricity sector, which grounds in the energy white paper (DME 1998).1 The plan proposed two scenarios with 9.6 GW of nuclear power (DoE 2011). Initially, the plan was set out as a flexible planning instrument, subject to updates every two years as economic and technical parameters may change. The original IRP was grounded in higher assumptions of economic growth than in reality, which translated into a higher demand (RSA 2010; DoE 2011). The original IRP stated clearly that growth assumptions have to be revised in the future (DoE 2011). The IRP update report (DoE 2013) revised the lower electricity demand and lower growth assumptions. The report established several scenarios taking alternative electricity generating technologies and prices into account. It recommended delaying or abandoning the nuclear built programme if the electricity demand does not unfold accordingly; solar, hydro, and gas options become available; or the cost of procuring nuclear energy exceeds a certain cost.[1] [2] The IRP update report did not undergo a public consultation process and was not presented for parliamentary approval. The original IRP remains the main policy basis for the government’s plans to expand nuclear power generation capacity.

  • [1] The Energy White Paper (DME 1998: 58) ruled out that new nuclear capacity should beadded before 2007. The paper qualifies that ‘whether new nuclear capacity will be an option atthat point or beyond will depend largely on the environmental and economic merits of otherenergy sources relative to nuclear and its potential and public acceptability, construction lead-times and load characteristics’.
  • [2] The IRP update report (DoE 2013) suggests delaying the decision to procure nuclear energy‘if the demand is lower than 270 TWh, if hydropower, [... ] rooftop photovoltaic or shale gasoptions succeed. The programme should be cancelled if the procurement price exceeds US$6,500per kWh.’
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