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Commentary: Opportunities Presented By Nuclear Energy For South Africa

Nuclear energy has long been a contentious issue in South Africa. Des Muller, co-spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform writes about why nuclear energy remains so attractive for South Africa’s energy industry.

Jennifer Granholm the United States Secretary of Energy has stated that, “Let me say it loud and clear: carbon-free nuclear power is an absolutely critical part of our decarbonisation equation.”

South Africa has an established and experienced nuclear industry, with some of our great talents behind the development of SMRs and the operation of new-generation nuclear power plants around the world.

Although our industry has been geared toward operating and maintaining the Koeberg and Safari reactors, the previous nuclear new build procurement programmes and Koeberg life extension projects have kickstarted our industry with new entrants qualifying for these opportunities.

During the 2007 nuclear build procurement programme, South Africa’s industry was well aligned with the international nuclear vendors and their construction partners while localising their offers to Eskom. Being a turn-key Engineer, Procure & Construct (EPC) solution, in partnership with competent local contractors, the risks experienced in our recent coal builds would have been mitigated. This remains the preferred project delivery strategy for nuclear energy.

The 2007 localisation target would have delivered a local spend of over R300 billion over 15 years. This would have prevented the collapse of our construction and manufacturing sectors and significantly reduced today’s high levels of unemployment.

For the sake of the millions of unemployed people in South Africa, let us not deny our industry this opportunity again. Let’s give our youth a chance to develop decent careers for themselves and create a future for this country.

Should Nersa approve the Section 34 Determination, we will have the added benefit of more nuclear vendors with SMRs included in our procurement process. Large-scale generation III reactors are through their ‘first of a kind’ (FOAK) phase, with many reactors successfully connected to the grid and delivering designed performance. Many large-scale gen III reactors and SMR prototypes are under construction around the world, significantly reducing construction risks for South Africa.

A country that is setting a great example for South Africa on localising a nuclear new build is the UK. They have similarities with our industry, having last built nuclear power plants almost four decades ago. Through an innovative government-led industrial support program and a well-geared industry, the local content for the first pair of units reached above 60% and is currently on target. The UK’s nuclear fleet build programme will benefit from the experience and lessons learned from the first power plant, with significant reductions in build costs, schedule, and electricity tariffs.

A nuclear build programme has far-reaching effects across the industry’s supply chain, from advanced education to apprenticeship training, with lasting jobs and careers in planning, regulatory affairs, siting studies, engineering, manufacturing, and construction disciplines, over the first 10 years, and operations and maintenance jobs over 60 to 80 years. Nuclear energy has no peers in creating decent sustainable jobs and should therefore be supported by our now transformed industries.

Participation in the nuclear industry supply chain requires much higher standards in quality, safety, and workmanship. Considering the scale of the opportunity at hand, gearing your business for these standards is justified. These nuclear energy qualifications will also open our local industry to previously denied export markets and other safety-class sectors like, Aerospace, 4IR precision manufacturing and LNG.

The exact timing on preparing our local industry for a nuclear build programme is critical. Starting at the right time will optimise the local content of the build and not expose our industry to unnecessary risk. Our industry should be developed on a gradient, through nuclear industry orientation, management system assessments, and prequalification programs, on which the South African Nuclear Build Platform provides guidance.

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