Nuclear Energy, the Good, the Bad and the Scary: Are We Ready for it?

01 March 2014

The minute the word Nuclear is dropped in any conversation, most people think atomic bombs, radiation, disfigured human beings, explosions, crazy scientists, etc. The general public doesn't have a clue that nuclear energy can produce electricity. Briefly, nuclear energy is produced when an atom's nucleus is split into smaller nuclei by the process called fission. The fission of large atoms such as Uranium 235 and Plutonium 239 produces a great deal of energy. In fact, the fission of 1 gram of Uranium 235 produces the same amount of energy as the combustion or burning of 3 tons of coal! The energy produced by the fission of uranium or plutonium can be harnessed to produce electricity, to propel space craft and to power weapons like the atomic bomb.

South Africa has two nuclear reactors situated in Cape Town, Koeberg. The reactors generate 5% of our country's electricity. Unlike a traditional coal-burning power plant, a nuclear power plant uses the energy or heat produced by the fission of uranium, rather than burning coal and producing soot and potential harmful gases such as carbon dioxide - the enemy of our environment, global warming culprit. However, like coal, uranium is mined and then processed before it can be used as an energy source, and like coal the different mining and processing steps as well as actual energy production produces a radioactive waste that we can't easily get rid of!

Electricity consumption in South Africa has been growing rapidly since 1980 Eskom a state utility administers and supplies about 95% of our electricity, coal-fired stations account for 34.3 GWe and nuclear 1.8 GWe. In 2008, we were first introduced to "load shedding", the demand was uncomfortable. To avoid the situation Eskom has planned to spend R385 billion on new capacity mainly coal and gas fired plants, it stated the country needs 40GWe of new generation by 2025 about half of which should be nuclear. But in May 2011 budget speech the energy minister reaffirmed that 22% of new generating capacity by 2030 would be nuclear and 14% coal-fired.

Nuclear power plants in South Africa are not new, the first one was commissioned in 1984 and began operating in the same year and has been producing electricity ever since. In 2007 the Eskom board approved a plan to double the generation capacity to 80 GWe by 2025, so that nuclear capacity would rise from 5% to 25% and coal's contribution would fall from 87% to 70%. The environment impact assessment (IEA) process confirmed in 2006 the selection of three possible sites for the next nuclear power units, namely Thyspunt, Bantamsklip and Duynefontein. In 2010 a draft environmental impact report was published recommending the Thyspunt site in Eastern Cape province near Oyster bay. After the Japan - Fukushima accident, the general public said NO to nuclear, but why? Because we are scared, we don't want any nuclear accidents, the clean up is more adverse than the damage. A lot of questions come to mind, are we ready for nuclear energy? Will it lower electricity costs? But can natural disasters be prevented? No, but a good nuclear plant design and in a secluded area is a preventative measure. Yes, having a variety combination generating capacity can lower the costs of electricity and boost our economy as electricity is mostly consumed by the mining industry - South Africa's ATM, the country can move away from being coal dependent. South Africa is ready for nuclear energy and we have the resources and infrastructure.

  1. Eskom holdings limited, Annual report 2009, p.226
  2. Total generation figures taken from Electricity generated and available for distribution (preliminary), statistics South Africa, Statistical release P4141 (December 2009) nuclear generation from nuclear power reactors in the world, International atomic energy agency, reference date series #2, 2009 edition (isbn: 9789201058096).
  3. Eskom shelves new nuclear project, world nuclear news (5 December 2008)
  4. Intergrated resources plan for electricity draft report, 2010, revision 2, RSA department of energy (8 October 2010)
  5. Eskom shelves new nuclear project, world nuclear news (5 December 2008)
  6. Integrated resources plan for electricity draft report, 2010, revision 2, RSA department of energy (8 October 2010)

Nomso Kana

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