Despite the former minister of finance Malusi Gigaba’s assertion that a new nuclear power plant is unaffordable for South Africa, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has granted a permit for a new nuclear development. This 4000-megawatt plant will be constructed near the only other functioning nuclear plant in South Africa, Koeberg, in the Western Cape.
The new plant will be met with mass opposition from Greenpeace Africa and other civic organisations across the country, as well as the community and influential individuals. Even President Cyril Ramaphosa suggested that the country cannot afford to build a new nuclear power plant.
Arguments for and against nuclear power
Like all controversial issues, there are always two sides – those in favour and those opposed. Supporters of nuclear energy will argue that it is a relatively clean source of energy compared to fossil fuels with minimal emissions. Nuclear power plants also require less space than traditional coal-powered stations and it is a reliable source of energy.
Those opposed the idea of nuclear energy will state that it is not economically viable for South Africa to invest in the expensive construction of a new plant. They are also likely to say that the risks associated with nuclear energy are far greater should something go wrong, as seen in the cases of Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Added to this is the fact that the radioactive waste produced during the nuclear fission is dangerous and more expensive to dispose of responsibly. The costs of decommissioning a nuclear power plant and the long-term maintenance of an old facility are also high.
Whatever the argument may be, for or against nuclear energy, the fact that the power output of nuclear energy is significant cannot be denied. Nuclear energy and associated facilities are protected under the UN Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which also aims to ensure that the technology and materials are used for peaceful means.
Other factors affecting nuclear power
The UN’s convention states that countries adopting nuclear power programmes need to implement national nuclear security standards that align with global imperatives. This can be a costly exercise for any developing country.
Furthermore, stakeholder support and information is vital to a new nuclear programme. Information must be shared and a high degree of transparency must be evident, which is something that the South African government failed to do under the previous leadership.
The proposed nuclear deal was veiled and citizens believe that it was pushed through on the basis of personal gain for a few individuals. Eight nuclear reactors were to be built by 2023 at a cost of one trillion rands. This deal was put on ice by the South African courts.
Nuclear power is not the magical solution to solving the world’s energy problems, but it is one option in the move away from fossil fuels. Countries like South Africa that want to develop new nuclear plants need to assess their own energy requirements and consider how they can meet those needs in a safe, responsible and cost-effective manner.
Image: © Scott Rodgerson
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