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Be sensible, go nuclear

Oct 02 2016 08:18
Kelvin Kemm

Johannesburg - South Africa is about the same size as western Europe. The distance from Pretoria to Cape Town is about the same as from Rome to London.

South Africa’s large coal-fired power stations are “on the other side of Pretoria” in Mpumalanga. Half of the electricity in the Western Cape comes from the coal fields; the other half comes from Koeberg Nuclear Power Station.

Imagine if a large chunk of the electricity required to power England came from Rome – they would consider that strategically dangerous. If electricity is transported over such a long distance, something can go wrong.

So here in South Africa, we have to be sensible. We have to produce much more electricity, which runs 24 hours a day, reliably. This means nuclear power. And it should be produced down south.

South Africa is one of the oldest nuclear countries in the world.

We predate France, China, Japan and others in the nuclear power development game. Our nuclear professionals know what they are doing. They have been in the game for a long time.

Government, advised by the technology professionals over a long period, made the sensible decision some years ago to add 9 600 megawatts of new nuclear power to the South African supply.

This extra nuclear power will add to the nearly 2 000MW that we already have from Koeberg. So, we will be expanding the nuclear system a lot.

READ: Why government's nuclear deal will destroy SA

This new 9 600MW of energy represents three new nuclear power stations, which will each have two or three nuclear reactors, depending on the final configurations decided upon when our professionals make these decisions together with the foreign companies that will be chosen as our technology partners.

Koeberg is a French design, but the people who actually built Koeberg were predominantly South African. The people who drove the trucks, poured the concrete, laid the pipes and electrical cables, did the internal electrical wiring and much more were all South African.

It amazes me that some people think that foreigners – American, French or Chinese workers – will come to South Africa to build concrete walls for the new reactors.

We will, of course, need highly skilled artisans such as welders, machinists, boilermakers, electronic guys and so on.

South Africa already has all of these skills.

Let me hasten to add that we don’t have enough of these highly skilled craftsmen, but a giant nuclear programme is a fantastic opportunity to train many more of these valuable people.

This is particularly true in areas such as the Eastern Cape, in the Port Elizabeth-to-Humansdorp area, where the first new nuclear plant is likely to be built.

Skills development in those areas will be a real blessing. Believe me, a qualified nuclear-grade welder can get a job in any other industrial area at any time later. Same for all other nuclear-grade skills.

There is a 50% localisation target for the construction of the three nuclear power stations, so a huge amount of money will go around inside the local economy.

READ: Nuclear plan on ice as Eskom may take ownership

We are not sending R1 trillion to any other country, no matter what you read from any source. These sources are frequently quoted as “some analysts say”. But they don’t tell you who “the analysts” are.

South Africans know how to run nuclear reactors. We have been doing it for over half a century.

We know about refuelling, repairs and maintenance, and all the other necessary stuff. We are not at the mercy of any foreign power to build the new plants or to keep them going for 100 years.

Nuclear power is not expensive.

Currently, Koeberg produces South Africa’s cheapest electricity. Yes, a nuclear plant has to be built to exacting standards, so a nuclear plant does cost more to build than a coal plant. But the amount of nuclear fuel required is extremely small and extremely price stable.

So the fuel costs, well into the future, are predictable and inexpensive compared with oil or gas, the costs of which vary like the wind.

When the nuclear professionals designed the South African nuclear systems in the first place, a fundamental design criteria was that the selling price of nuclear-generated electricity must be about the same as the cost of coal-generated electricity.

They would never have gone down that nuclear path if they could not make that happen.

The same types of technology professionals would never design a new large passenger airliner if they could not get the selling price of seats competitive to other aircraft from the start. They know that.

READ: Confusion over request for proposals on nuclear

If you want a good night’s sleep and you take a sleeping pill, you should sleep well.

If you want a really good sleep, you could decide to take the whole packet of pills in one shot and the chances are you will never wake up. If you drink a shot or two of whisky to feel mellow and relaxed, it should work.

If you drink a dozen bottles of whisky in one go to really unwind, you will most likely wind down into a coffin.

If you carry two litres of petrol in a bottle to put in the lawnmower tank to power up the mower, it will work.

If you pour two litres of petrol on your head and then light a match, you will light up the whole garden. The neighbours will remember your name forever.

But people don’t generally do stupid things like that. If you are careful, petrol, pills and whisky are beneficial. It’s the same with nuclear power.

If you treat nuclear power, nuclear fuel and nuclear radiation professionally, they are a great benefit to society.

If you do something dumb, you can harm or kill yourself, or others. South Africans are professionals in the business, and internationally recognised as such. Our nuclear fellows are well trained to do the right thing all the time.

Contrary to much public belief, nobody was killed or harmed by nuclear radiation at Fukushima.

The reactors at Fukushima, after a mighty tsunami hit them, ended up a financial wreck for the owner. But nobody was harmed by radiation.

Children would have been much safer inside the nuclear reactor building than in school when the wall of water struck.

The children in school died and more than 15 000 Japanese people died during the tsunami, but none from nuclear radiation.

There is a shining path of nuclear power development that has opened up for South Africans. We have to walk it with pride and confidence. The world is watching us. We can show them.

Kemm is CEO of Nuclear Africa, and chairman of the SA Nuclear Energy Corporation

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