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Nuclear Energy’s “Least Regret”

South Africa has been one of the pioneering nations in electricity supply where, in 1882, Kimberly had electric streetlamps while London still relied on gas. In 1887, the first centralised coal-fired power station was built in Brakpan to power the local mines and industries of Johannesburg. This sparked a nation-wide electricity expansion program using coal-fired power plants to power our towns into cities, supply our rail infrastructures and safely grow our mining and industrial economies.

The abundance of coal in South Africa and power plant scalability led to the massive capacity expansion program over the second half of the 20th century to where we are today, where over 80% of the electricity we consume is powered by coal.

As we entered the 21st century, our unprecedented demand for energy prompted us to find more sustainable ways to generate power to ensure we also took care of the environment and our citizen’s health. Today, energy planners should minimally achieve energy security, environmental sustainability, and access to affordable energy as primary goals. Therefore, a transition toward a more balanced and sustainable energy portfolio is being pursued.

While hydro and nuclear energy were making their own 20th century contributions, recent advancements in technology saw the introduction of gas and renewable energy, like wind and solar, into our energy mix. With the initial improvements in cost and performance, the global market-share of installed gas and renewable energy grew exponentially over the last two decades.

Due to Eskom’s aging assets, challenging new-builds and the intermittency of renewables, our past energy planning, or lack of execution, has imploded our energy security, given the recent load-shedding we and our economy have had to endure. Our future is not encouraging either, as we plan to decommission a quarter of our energy capacity over the next decade, with little substance on the drawing board.

With the wealth of experience, we now have, on the performance characteristics and actual costs of all the different generation technologies, we can make informed decisions toward planning and implementing the most optimal energy systems for our country’s future needs.

While nuclear energy is being portrayed as an “unpopular” solution for South Africa, it is quietly producing the cheapest, cleanest, safest, and most reliable electricity in the country, making it attractive for intensive energy users. That is why it is aptly considered by our Energy Minister as an energy source of “least regret”.

Considering the high levels of safety built into nuclear power plants, their construction costs are understandably higher. However, considering their extremely high life expectancy, the sheer volume of electricity they produce and their low operating costs, the electricity produced is competitive, even during the capitalisation phase, and unchallenged once paid off. The longer construction lead times and safe operating life are also a great benefit toward addressing our country’s rising unemployment while raising the standards of our industries.

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