Incoming Energy Minister David Mahlobo on Thursday highlighted his vision for South Africa’s nuclear energy future, following the approval for Eskom to develop 4GW of new power stations near Koeberg last week.
Mahlobo is the third energy minister this year. Tina Joemat-Pettersson was axed in March after the nuclear programme was halted following a court ruling. Her successor, Mmamoloko Kubayi, was this week redeployed to the communications ministry, with speculation that President Jacob Zuma was not happy with her progress in restarting the nuclear procurement programme.
Critics and opposition parties have warned that Mahlobo’s appointment could be an attempt by Zuma to push through the nuclear deal, as the president’s leadership position hangs in the balance ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in December.
4GW of new nuclear next to Koeberg
His appointment comes as the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) last week authorised its Final Environmental Impact Report for the power station at Duynefontein, giving Eskom permission to develop a new nuclear plant next to the existing Koeberg power station.
Koeberg, based outside Cape Town, is Africa’s only nuclear power station and contributes 6%, or 1.8GW, to South Africa’s power grid.
Citing the outdated 2010 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which states that South Africa requires 9.6GW of nuclear energy before 2030, Mahlobo said the latest development forms part of a “policy decision to pursue nuclear energy as a baseload energy form to mitigate our carbon footprint”.
"South Africa recognises the role of nuclear power in ensuring security of energy supply and meeting the challenge of climate change," he said. "South Africa has made a policy decision to pursue nuclear energy as part of the energy mix and recognise the role of nuclear as a base-load source of energy in ensuring security of supply and climate change mitigation."
A new IRP has been promised by the end of 2017 or the beginning of 2018. The draft IRP delayed developing any nuclear energy until 2037, but there is speculation the final policy could bring nuclear back in as a requirement.
Mahlobo said the DEA authorisation allows for a public participation process to begin. "We welcome this decision as it allows for a public participation process, which we believe will propel the country towards the fulfilment of the government policy position on an all-inclusive energy mix."
He was speaking at the Gen Four International Forum, a conference of nuclear experts focusing on developing safer, cleaner and more advanced nuclear energy technology.
Energy Minister David Mahlobo (left) and deputy director general for nuclear energy Zizamele Mbambo. (Photo: Matthew le Cordeur).
Peddle bed reactor still an option in future
Mahlobo said South Africa follows an energy mix strategy, which includes gas, renewable energy, coal and nuclear. However, he said nuclear is seen as an important base-load, zero carbon technology that would help bring energy security to the country.
"Some of the energy sources are intermittent supply and while others, such as nuclear and coal, are base-load supply," he said.
The world currently uses generation two nuclear technology (the technology used at Fukushima’s power station and at Koeberg), but generation three reactors are beginning to come online.
South Africa’s controversial pebble bed project was an attempt at developing generation four reactors, but this was cancelled in 2010. The project has since been revived in a limited form by Eskom. “We remain interested to deploy such technology into the future,” Mahlobo said.
"At this stage, we are focusing on readily deployable technologies to address our electricity demand needs going into the future as our coal fired power plants become decommissioned."
New generation of nuclear reactors
Mahlobo said South Africa would only pursue generation three or higher nuclear reactors. “South Africa has taken a decision to only deploy generation three or above, because we need to move to the next stage. It must be much cleaner, safer, and produce less waste.”
"Sustainability of our environment is key, and being a committed party to the Paris Convention, South Africa has set ambitious carbon reduction targets, which generation four reactors will continue the tradition of nuclear power being the lowest carbon emitter from all energy sources.
"With the advent of reduced waste from these systems, there is no doubt that nuclear power itself will be more sustainable than ever.
"The further improved safety of generation four systems will surpass this benchmark, and hopefully cure the myth that nuclear is an unsafe source of energy," he said.
Zuma's nuclear minister?
Allegations that Mahlobo's appointment is a desperate bid by Zuma to get the nuclear new build programme off the ground hinge on revelation that he accompanied Zuma (with Deputy International Relations Minister Nomaindia Mfeketo) on a state visit to Russia in 2014, where he met with Putin at his residence in Novo-Ogariovo. No aides, advisers or wives went along, creating a veil of secrecy.
It has been widely speculated that Zuma and Putin struck a deal on nuclear cooperation at this meeting, but no evidence has ever emerged to confirm this. Rosatom, Zuma and the Department of Energy have consistently denied such a deal.
Democratic Alliance energy spokesperson Gordon Mackay said South Africans should be deeply concerned. “This is the state securitisation of the energy department. It started under Kubayi and will be completed under Mahlobo.”