18 March 2016

Business Day (South Africa): Nuclear power pros and cons up for debate

Nuclear power pros and cons up for debate

Business Day - BDLive

by Charlotte Mathews, 15 March 2016, 05:42

THE public protector’s office is considering whether it should work to pre-empt corruption in state procurement or only react after the law is breached, says deputy public protector Kevin Malunga.

Adv Malunga was discussing a complaint by the Democratic Alliance to the protector about the decision-making on SA’s nuclear procurement. In October last year, Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute challenged the procurement process in court.

The firing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December, coinciding with the Cabinet’s issue of a request for proposals to build 9,600 megawatts of nuclear power capacity, has increased public unease about lack of transparency in the deal. It followed months of closed, high-level discussions with nuclear power companies from Russia, France, China and the US, including a visit by President Jacob Zuma to Russia, whose state-owned Rosatom is regarded as a frontrunner for the contract.

Speaking last week during a debate on whether nuclear energy is appropriate for SA, hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the World Wide Fund For Nature SA, Adv Malunga said the public protector’s office had been asked to look at whether there had been any statutory or legislative irregularities in the process. The Constitution says public procurement must be fair, transparent, cost competitive and equitable.

He said it was not up to the public protector to say whether nuclear was the best option for SA, but to ensure proper process was followed, to avoid subsequent litigation against the state.

Independent energy analyst Mycle Schneider, who co-authors the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report, said nuclear’s share of world energy use had been declining in the past 20 years. Its decline predated the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.

Another speaker at the debate, German ambassador Walter Lindner, said Fukushima had resulted in a comprehensive rejection of nuclear power in Germany.

Last year, 10 nuclear units came on line, the lowest number for 25 years, the status report showed. Most of these were in China, which has been growing its renewable generation faster than nuclear. Last year 391 nuclear reactors were in operation, 47 fewer than the peak of 2002. The US and France account for more than half of global nuclear energy-generation.

According to the report, three quarters, or 47, of all units under construction in the world are delayed, and five have been “under construction” for more than 30 years. Nuclear power companies are in deep financial trouble.

France’s state-controlled integrated nuclear company, Areva, has a four-year cumulative loss of €8bn. Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the credit rating of Atomenergoprom, the Rosatom subsidiary, to junk.

Mr Schneider said financial cutbacks could affect safety, and SA should be aware of this in nuclear stations managed by Eskom.

Mr Lindner said SA’s decision on nuclear energy was a matter of national sovereignty and the reality was different in every country.

If SA switched from its reliance on coal, there would be an energy gap, and no countries in the Southern African Power Pool had enough power to restart SA’s grid if there was a total outage, he said.

Germany’s situation was different. After Fukushima, it turned off eight of its 19 nuclear reactors and will close the rest by 2022. This was possible because Germany can buy electricity from other European countries and it has been investing heavily in renewables. It plans to generate 80% of its power from renewable sources by 2050.

Germany had decided the risks and costs of nuclear, including technical, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and the insoluble problems of disposing of nuclear waste, outweighed nuclear’s benefits of low-carbon power and relatively fewer deaths than, for example, coal mining, Mr Lindner said.

Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA CEO Phumzile Tshelane said Mr Lindner was correct in saying Germany’s experience could not be a blueprint for SA, which was an outpost of large-scale energy in southern Africa. SA had coal, but no gas, and it needed a mix of energy sources. It also had substantial uranium deposits, and it made sense to use them.

Perceptions of the risk of nuclear power were distorted, Mr Tshelane said. Accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl killed far fewer people than accidents at chemical plants or mines. SA’s economy had suffered from too little power and it had persuaded big business to avoid energy-intensive projects. With more baseload power, it could attract investment into job-creating industries.