Experts puzzled by Ramokgopa's sudden decision to go nuclear

Affordability and necessity questioned, as was the timing of the announcement

12 December 2023 - 22:06
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Minister of electricity Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa at Tuesday's media briefing.
Minister of electricity Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa at Tuesday's media briefing.
Image: Freddy Mavunda/Business Day

Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa’s announcement that nuclear energy will be back in the energy mix indicated “greed rather than need” said some experts, who questioned the  affordability of nuclear energy and the timing of the minister's announcement.

Ramokgopa declared on Tuesday that the process to procure additional nuclear capacity was under way as the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) had given its go-ahead.

Along with executives from the department of mineral resources and energy (DMRE), they said the process, which is to start in March 2024 by issuing a request for proposal (RFP), would procure an additional 2,500MW nuclear power.

However, energy experts said it was not the cheapest option despite Ramokgopa saying otherwise.

They questioned the timing of the announcement and pointed out discrepancies and unrealistic expectations tabled by Ramokgopa.

Ramokgopa cagey about costs

The Southern African Faith Communities' Environment Institute's executive director, Francesca de Gasparis, said the announcement had left civil society in disbelief. She said it was known that nuclear energy was neither affordable nor required in the country’s energy mix.

“We know electricity baseload does not need nuclear energy and, in the absence of a finalised and fully reviewed integrated resource plan (IRP2023), today’s announcement by government seems to be motivated by greed, not need. During question time this morning, queries about the true costs associated with nuclear energy were met with non-answers,” De Gasparis said.

Earthlife Africa director Makoma Lekalakala says nuclear is not the least cost-effective option but found it odd that the announcement was not made by Nersa.

“This is something we expected to be announced by Nersa, to let us know that the DMRE had satisfied the suspensive conditions that were set, according to section 34 [of the Electricity Regulation Act]. Section 34 also mentions that any electricity generation option has to be the least-cost option and we know that nuclear is not.”

The Koeberg Alert Alliance (KAA) said Ramokgopa’s statement that nuclear was the cheapest form of energy applied only if construction and financing costs were ignored, adding that they are a significant cost.

“It is simply ridiculous to ignore. Another speaker said the expected capital cost of a new nuclear build was ‘2,100 to 7,500 per kWh’. Not only did he forget to mention what currency that was in, he also apparently does not understand the difference between kWh and kW. It seems he was trying to quote the US dollar price per kW of capacity.”

The Green Connection’s Liziwe McDaid said Ramokgopa’s announcement came after the PetroSA Gazprom deal had been revealed.

It was announced on Monday that the cabinet had endorsed PetroSA’s recommendation to select Russia’s Gazprombank as an investment partner to reinstate PetroSA’s plant and production.

McDaid said this raised many questions as, for years, PetroSA has not been a concern but could be dependent on Eskom to use their diesel, which is a fossil fuel that needs to be avoided.

“So, this is a very tangled web that we are not happy with. And now comes an announcement of new nuclear — but there is no depth to the announcement. So why was it necessary to have a briefing today? The only answer that comes to mind is that today’s announcement is meant to distract us from the PetroSA/Gazprom deal.”

KAA was also puzzled by the timing of the announcement as the latest revision of the IRP2023 is about to be released for public comment.

“So why make this announcement now? It seems there were three reasons. One is election season combined with minister Ramokgopa’s desire to find something which can appear to be a positive announcement.

“Second, this is an announcement of a gravy train — it does not matter if finance is found for this new nuclear build, or if it is ever actually built. There will now be millions available for various consultants and legal firms to assist with composing the RFP, processing responses, and so on.

“As an example, in 2016 while ‘preparing’ for the new nuclear build (which never materialised), the DMRE spent R213m on consultants.

“Third, it seems to be an attempt to distract the media and civil society from other goings on in the energy sector, which are frequently slipped through over the December break.”


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