Weekend Post (South Africa)

Case for nuclear energy: in the nucleus of an electrifyi­ng dream


DAVID Nicholls is by any measure a nice guy. Tall and loping, talking away at high speed, he’s an Englishman who’s spent most of his life at Eskom, where he is now chief nuclear officer.

At 62, his dreams are finally coming true. He’s the guy who’ll decide what reactors get bought and where they’ll go once the politics around the nuclear deal gets sorted.

A true believer, he can’t see the political problem. He doesn’t think nuclear is dangerous. Or even that expensive in the long term. I suspect that if he had his way, all 48 000MW of our base-load power would be nuclear one day.

And if you remind him that studies show a fault line close to the Thuyspunt site near Cape St Francis and that researcher­s think it’s crazy to put a reactor there, he’ll tell you he’s got it covered.

Eskom asked the Americans to model the biggest earthquake they could on the nearest part of the fault line to Thuyspunt. The result? Nothing, he says. Nada.

Besides, he’ll tell you, nuclear reactors (he calls them “machines”) can move a bit. He was an engineer officer on HMS Superb, a nuclearpow­ered submarine, in the late 1970s. Superb carried its own nuclear reactor. It moved, and when the weather was rough it moved even more.

You get the point quickly with Nicholls. The point is that some kind of nuclear deal is going to happen and, I’m afraid for my friends near Thuyspunt, you’re first.

The site has recently been fenced. The plan would be first to put reactors on the site there and then add another to the two Koeberg reactors near Cape Town, or possibly one or two on the Duynefonte­in site close by. Eventually, Thuyspunt could hold up to four reactors.

The third site identified by Eskom as a possibilit­y is Bantamskli­p, between Gansbaai and Agulhas. But hooking up Bantamskli­p to the grid would be prohibitiv­ely expensive as transmissi­on lines would have to cross at least one and possibly two mountain ranges.

The thing about the nuclear deal is that, assuming finance can be found, it is, on paper, being made up as the planners go along. Getting to the 9 600MW the government is officially chasing is going to take an extremely long time, and time and events always change plans. And government­s.

But Nicholls and his bosses at Eskom have their heads down and are running hard, and for now, they have lots of political support. Still, it is complex, anything could happen.

Nicholls is clear, though, about what he wants from a serious bidder for the tender(s) to come: They must already have a “machine” of proven reliabilit­y up and running at home.

They must have the same machine operating far from home – in other words, prove they can work successful­ly in export markets.

They should control their own intellectu­al property (the nuclear industry is awash with complicate­d licence agreements). They should have built a reactor in the past 10 years within a reasonable time.

When I suggest that the only bidder who would meet those criteria today would be the Russians, he has a sip of water and says nothing.

In fact – and this is now me talking – the Thuyspunt and Koeberg/ Duynefonte­in split could get the government out of a jam when it comes to handing out tenders.

The Russians would get Thuyspunt (and potentiall­y more than half the 9 600MW with their 1 200MW VVR1200 reactors) and the French and Chinese could get Cape Town.

China makes French reactors on a licence. Even the Germans! Siemens has moved a lot of its nuclear technology into ventures with Rosatom following the German government’s decision to shut all its reactors.

I’m in two minds about nuclear power. Sort of okay, but the further away from me the better. And if we can afford it, obviously. But listening to people fully behind the project there’s a power driving it (other than pure graft) that we don’t talk about. We need nuclear, believers argue, so it can power re-industrial­isation.

But that just isn’t going to happen. Manufactur­ing on any serious scale here is done and dusted unless we can radically alter industrial and labour policy, which seems impossible. And we don’t need it.

We should stick to the things we do well – mining, farming and agroproces­sing and tourism – and do them better.

Having said that, the one bright thought Nicholls leaves me with is that we could restart work on our own nuclear technology: the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR). Remember? Nicholls says before he resigned as Eskom CEO, Brian Molefe asked him why the project had been dropped. Nicholls told him it was internal Eskom politics, not the technology.

“So, get back to work on it,” Molefe said.

Nicholls is doing just that. The old PBMR team is spread around the world. Many want back in. We lost an enormous pool of industrial talent and experience when the project was dropped and if we ever build a competitiv­e and affordable South African reactor, we will have done the almost impossible and, I’m afraid, we may have to thank Brian Molefe for it.

ý Peter Bruce is editor-in-chief of Business Day, Financial Mail and ABC. This article first appeared in BD.

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