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There is room for nuclear

Oct 09 2016 06:29
Dewald Van Rensburg

The outcry over government’s plans to build new nuclear power plants was based on “misconceptions” about the country’s Integrated Resource Plan – a comprehensive 20-year electricity generation plan, promulgated in March 2011 – a government official said this week.

“It is not correct that everything in the plan is irrelevant because the assumptions are old, and so on. It is not like we are just making these decisions while the [updated] resource plan may tell us differently,” the department of energy’s deputy director-general, Ompi Aphane, told City Press on the sidelines of the SA Gas Options conference, held in Cape Town this week to address opportunities available for gas developers and private-sector investors as a result of South Africa’s growing power demands.

The last public version of the resource plan, which sets out South Africa’s power needs from 2010 to 2030, was released in 2013. It made the call for 9 600 megawatts in nuclear capacity to be built – but only if electricity demand and economic growth recovered to certain levels.

Since then, economic growth and power demand have declined.

It is widely expected that a new, updated resource plan would severely reduce the nuclear component of the country’s future energy mix, undermining Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s repeated insistence that South Africa was meant to build 9 600MW of nuclear capacity.

“If you spend time with those who are anti-nuclear, they will tell you the resource plan says [not to build nuclear],” said Aphane.

“It is not true that [the plan] has not been updated. There are a lot of misconceptions out there. What you are not privy to is that the update process is well advanced. In fact, we believe that in the next few weeks, we will take it through the processes internally and then out for public consultation.

“Government’s position is about an energy mix. It is not like we go out there and say: ‘We are anti-nuclear.’ We run the model. If it says [go for] nuclear, like the resource plan did, so be it. It is not for us to say we do not like this.

“Similarly, when the guys tell us renewables are useless, we call them to order, because we can demonstrate how all of these things have some benefit in a mix.”

However, Aphane said calls for renewables to take centre stage in energy policy were misguided.

Proponents of nuclear say it is the next-best form of steady base load power after coal, whereas renewables are too unpredictable to rely on for much of the national power supply.

There is a growing counter-argument that renewables – combined with gas power that can be scaled up on short notice – could effectively emulate base-load power and solve the dilemma, without the need for nuclear or more coal power plants.

“There is some logic in that, but there are limits as well,” said Aphane.

“We are talking utility-scale wind and solar. If you wanted to build 50 000MW of wind power in this country, it would be impossible. You do not have the physical space for it, relative to where the wind blows.

“You want to strike a nice trade-off between things,” said Aphane.

“Nuclear is responsive to the greenhouse gas issue and water usage. I am stating these things as fact. There is a space for nuclear alongside all these things.”

Aphane admitted that it had been too long since the last version of the resource plan was released, but said critics calling for constant updates were misguided and mistakenly believed an update was due every two years.

“The law says that good practice makes it prudent that the plan gets updated frequently. Frequently could be every day, which is impractical. It could be every year, which is too tight. It is premised on assumptions, so when these shift, it is only prudent to update. Yes, four years might be too long, but two years might be too short,” he said.

While the public might not know it, Aphane claimed the department had kept the resource plan up to date. “If there is something drastic that happens, you want to revisit your assumptions and adjust them accordingly. What we have done is keep track of some of the developments in that regard.”

The most glaring example of assumptions that have had to shift may very well be around gas, not nuclear. “The previous plan was not so gung ho about gas because, back in 2008 and 2009, the picture was completely different,” said Aphane.

“The US was a big importer of gas. We were sitting north of $100 [R1 390 at today’s exchange rate] a barrel of oil. All of that has changed due to shale gas. Prices have come down.”

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nuclear energy  |  gas  |  nuclear  |  sa nuclear deal
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