Viewpoint: South Africa risks losing its leading role

02 November 2018

South Africa stands at the precipice of anonymity in nuclear power, writes Gaopalelwe Santswere, executive chairman of South African Young Nuclear Professionals Society (SAYNPS) and current president of African Young Generation in Nuclear (AYGN).

Santswere is executive chairman of SAYNPS and president of AYGN.

Already toppled as the largest economy on the continent, South Africa stands further to lose its strategic and social lead from its indecisiveness on policy implementation which continuously attributed to loss of investor confidence.

The country risks losing its permanent seat at the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors, the IAEA’s principal decision-making body, if Egypt, which has recently signed a 4800 MWe new-build contract, or any other African country brings online nuclear power generation capacity.

The IAEA statute, as amended up to 28 December 1989, states that "the outgoing Board of Governors shall designate for a membership on the Board the ten members most advanced in the technology of atomic energy including the production of source materials, and the member most advanced in the technology of atomic energy including the production of source materials."

The government's indecision and lack of assertiveness has weakened South Africa's position on the continent and in time will very likely undermine its influence on geopolitical issues. It stands to lose even more now that a significant number of African states have declared their progressive intentions and plans to adopt nuclear technology.

Largely viewed as a populist move, nuclear energy does not even feature on the recently released and yet to be debated Integrated Resource Plan 2018. Much of the opposition to nuclear power stems from the manner with which the previous administration sought bluntly to push for a nuclear deal. The government's blind and blanket opposition in response now will prove to be unwise.

Historically, South Africa has been a nuclear pioneer on the continent and successfully generates some 5% of clean power from a single-site reactor in Cape Town. There is immense potential for nuclear to provide a clean baseload source of electricity to meet South Africa's energy deficit while also minimising carbon emissions in line with its commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Additionally, the country has been developing nuclear technology for non-power uses, becoming a leader in global nuclear medicine producer.

Speaking at the Energy Sector Roundtable Stakeholder Engagement event recently, Minister of Energy Jeff Radebe said, "South Africa owns the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant as the only commercial operating nuclear power station in Africa and it supplies about 5% power to the national grid. I’m pleased to announce that South Africa is a key global manufacturer and supplier of medical radioisotopes, generating valuable foreign exchange and contributing to economic growth while providing a strong foundation and support for local industrialisation, skills development and retention, and job creation."

Every year more than 40 million people globally receive life-saving medical diagnosis or treatment using nuclear medicine of which around 25% of medical radioisotopes used in these procedures come from just one nuclear reactor in South Africa - SAFARI-1 - operated by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa).

The BRICS countries excluding South Africa - Brazil, Russia, India and China - have significant nuclear build programmes to complement their economic growth. South Africa's potential meanwhile remains unrealised owing to policy riddled with contradictions. By far the biggest proportion of installed nuclear capacity (more than 80%, according to the International Energy Agency) lies in OECD countries, but this is likely to shift towards BRICS countries (excluding South Africa). The latest estimates suggest that by 2035 non-OECD countries will be responsible for nearly 80% of the global increase in installed nuclear power capacity. In such a scenario, South Africa would be an economic laggard.

Despite being home to a diverse range of energy resources - from oil and gas in the west to strong hydro power potential in the more central regions, as well as nuclear, the continent still suffers the consequences of energy deficiency.

Africa is one of the world's biggest bases of uranium resources. The IAEA forecasts that by 2050 more than 85% of Africa’s uranium will be exported for the benefit of other countries. Very little of this resource will return to Africa to be used by its own nuclear power industry.

If South Africa does not raise the bar and change this forecast, then what kind of example would it set for its continental neighbours? The benefits of its leadership in nuclear industry knowledge and could be lost for ever.
The very least the government can do is stay informed on the progress that the other four BRICS nations are making in nuclear energy and consider the technology in their ongoing discussions on increasing access to electricity for all South Africans.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News