The national nuclear energy executive co-ordinating committee is due to make a decision this year on South Africa’s future investment in a fleet of nuclear power plants, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba says.
South Africa has little time to reach a decision on how to meet its future energy requirements.
Eskom’s existing capital programme ends in 2018 with no other power-generation programmes in place. The rolling blackouts of 2008 were a result of government tardiness in approving new power plants - a mistake the state is anxious to avoid repeating.
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The committee incorporates the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, Eskom, the National Nuclear Regulator, and government departments including the Department of Energy and the Department of Public Enterprises. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is chairman of the committee.
Mr Gigaba said the committee had been "working around the clock" debating issues relating to a nuclear build programme. According to the Integrated Resource Plan - produced in 2010 and criticised for not being responsive to changes in South Africa’s regional energy profile or the hazards of nuclear power - South Africa has 9.6GW allocated to nuclear energy for base-load power.
"It was never going to be an easy decision," Mr Gigaba said at the Medupi site last week. "This year we should get our decision."
He said the nuclear power debate would be difficult because of the environmental and cost concerns.
Nuclear power plants are expensive to build, but have no emissions and are generally cheaper to run than other types of power plants. The 4800MW Medupi plant was priced at R90-billion.
Safety concerns aside, there are reservations about the desirability of nuclear power in the state’s new economic policy, the National Development Plan. The plan raises concerns about the costs of the programme.
National Planning Commission member and academic Anton Eberhard recently argued against the need for the nuclear power, saying South Africa could meet its energy security needs without investing in nuclear.
He said energy demand has grown more slowly than forecast and less generation capacity would be needed over the next 20 years than initially anticipated. Added to this was a change in the cost of renewable energy technologies which had fallen because of large subsidies pumped into the industry largely by Germany and China.
Last month, Mr Motlanthe pitched for the establishment of a nuclear industry in South Africa, saying the country needed nuclear energy to meet future demand and that the industry could generate R60-billion once the nuclear build programme was implemented.