January 12, 2009 / 2:17 PM / 10 years ago

Nuclear only a distant solution for S.Africa

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa expects its next nuclear power plant to come on stream by 2019, two years later than initially planned by utility Eskom, which has dropped plans to build the facility due to financial woes.

A cooling tower at a nuclear power plant in southwestern Slovakia, November 3, 2008. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa

While Eskom was hoping nuclear energy would supply one quarter or 20,000 megawatts (MW) of South Africa’s expanded generating capacity by 2025, the government says a target of 6,000 MW in the same period is more feasible.

Africa’s biggest economy, which has been battling a power shortage, will have to keep reverting to more coal to supply its growing demand in the meantime.

“We appreciate what Eskom had as a plan, but we need to be practical and see what can be done in that time — 6,000 MW seems much more feasible,” said Nelisiwe Magubane, the deputy director general at the Department of Minerals and Energy.

Eskom operates Africa’s sole nuclear power plant, Koeberg, with a total capacity of 1,800 megawatts. Magubane said an additional 3,200 MW of the planned 6,000 MW is due in 2019.

The government, which took over after Eskom bowed out, said the two-year delay was needed to properly initiate the process.

Some experts say the government could have helped Eskom raise funding for the nuclear project through debt guarantees.

But Mugabane said the government wanted to launch a process that differed from the utility’s one-time proposal to ensure it could build up the fleet over time.

South Africa would approach various countries which have made nuclear part of their energy mix to copy their models. These include France, the United Kingdom, the United States, South Korea and Russia.

Nuclear is a major part of South Africa’s energy diversification plan to reduce its heavy reliance on coal, which now supplies the lion’s share of its electricity.

AGEING FLEET

The government would revise its nuclear plans taking into account the economic slowdown, but the decision to expand South Africa’s nuclear supply was not based on choice, Magubane said.

“In the next 20 years we need to decommission quite a number of coal fire power plants, so we need to have a plan on what it would be that would replace that ageing fleet,” she said.

“So it’s not a question of whether we can afford it or not ... it’s a fact that we will be needing that.”

But the cost, coupled with the long lead time of some 7-10 years to build a new nuclear plant means the country will have to pump up its coal production in the meantime, even though that will harm its ambition to reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

South Africa’s progress on renewable energies has also been slow, hindered by financial constraints and the limited amount of energy they produce.

Eskom recently committed to building 50 wind turbines, which would provide 2 MW of power each, but critics say this lacks economic viability to raise supply and reduce emissions.

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