Johannesburg - South Africa's proposed plan to build six new nuclear plants by 2030 came under scrutiny on Friday as industrial leaders, bankers and environmentalists questioned cost, timelines and feasibility in public hearings.
In a draft of its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2), the government proposed that nuclear and renewable energy play a bigger role in plugging South Africa's power deficit as it seeks to halve its reliance on dirtier coal-fired plants.
South Africa currently relies on coal for most of its electricity supply, some 95% of which is generated by power utility Eskom.
Mike Deats, a former Eskom executive, said the government should bring back to service some of its old coal-fired plants to gain time until new nuclear plants can be built, adding the goal to have the next nuclear plant by 2023 was too ambitious.
"They must get a move on the nuclear power stations ... you have to order them now," he said during the IRP hearings.
The energy plan estimates that about 52 248 megawatts will need to be built by 2030 on top of current supply of around 40 000 MW to meet fast-rising demand and avoid the repeat of a power crisis, which shut down mines and other industry for days in 2008 and cost the country billions of dollars in lost output.
Some people testifying at the hearings suggested that South Africa speed up the development of its natural gas resources. Others raised questions about its plans to manage nuclear waste and health risks.
Mohamed Adam, a senior manager speaking for Eskom, said the energy plan underestimated the price curve of the proposed power expansion and said it lacked a back-up plan in case some projects did not materialise or were delayed.
He also said South Africa should explore the option of regional imports, especially of gas.
The utility said last week the power supply in South Africa would remain tight until 2015, and especially over the next two years, until Eskom's first new power plants in two decades come on stream.
South Africa currently operates the continent's only nuclear plant, a 1 800 MW unit near Cape Town.
The government has said it would like to build a nuclear fleet instead of just one plant to gain economies of scale.
The last attempt to build a nuclear plant, led by Eskom, was scratched on funding difficulties. Bidders for the project included France's Areva and US company Westinghouse which is majority owned by Japan's Toshiba Corp.
In another presentation, China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp, China's second-largest nuclear power developer, said a second-generation 1 085 MW reactor could be built by 2020, instead of 2023, followed by three other such units by 2024.
South Africa is keen to get private investors to help foot the bill for new plants and reduce the strain on Eskom, although the nuclear investment may need to be government-led, according to CGNPC.
A Standard Bank Group [JSE:SBK] official also said CGNPC and South Korea's Kepco could supply second-generation nuclear plants faster and cheaper than the third-generation plants assumed in the IRP.
Spokesmen for industry said the energy plan needed more clarity for firms wishing to invest in their own plants.
Private producers said they could easily supply power to the grid at no cost to Eskom nor to the National Treasury if given the chance, but they needed a policy framework to do so.
The plan is expected to be passed into law early next year.