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South Africa goes nuclear as new energy strategy mulled

Environmental and anti-nuclear protests are falling on deaf ears in South Africa where the government of this emerging economy has approved a strategic framework for the development of nuclear power.

The plan includes the construction of an uranium enrichment plant in the Cape state, one of the world’s major producers of uranium. At the end of 2006, the government’s plans were approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body responsible for controls on nuclear production. South Africa, which runs one of the only commercial nuclear reactors in Africa, has a long tradition of utilizing nuclear power. At the Pelindaba nuclear research institute near Pretoria in the country’s north-east, the former apartheid regime had developed an atomic bomb under conditions of extreme secrecy.

Before the return of democracy to South Africa, nuclear activities in the Cape were being closely monitored internationally. An estimated several kilograms of uranium ready for use to produce nuclear weapons were being stored at Pelindaba and were regularly inspected by the IAEA. The Safari 1 research reactor also produces isotopes for medical use, of which South Africa supplies a quarter of the world’s needs. In parallel with China, the country is also developing a mini- reactor. Based on German pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) technology, it is expected to be exported after the prototype is produced in 2012.

South Africa reportedly plans to use the uranium from old Russian nuclear warheads to power this reactor. The country sold its old uranium enrichment facility to China in 1997 and the construction costs for a new one are estimated to be $2.69 billion. The chief director of nuclear energy at the minerals and energy department, Tseliso Maqubela, told the South Africa parliament Wednesday that the country’s “first preference” would be to build the facility in cooperation with “international partners.” However, “if we don’t succeed in this, we will have to develop our own capabilities,” he said. “Africa needs to benefit from this ... not just by selling ore or concentrate.”

In Maqubela’s view, once the facility is operating the profit margins are big, as high as 50%, he estimates. A new era of investment in energy infrastructure had arrived and nuclear energy was set to “form an integral part of South Africa’s future diversified electricity generation mix.” This view was shared by the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA), an umbrella organization representing the nuclear energy industry founded in June, when it referred to a “nuclear renaissance in South Africa.” “We have the uranium and we have the technology,” said Alec Erwin the minister responsible for South Africa’s state energy company Eskom.

Eskom is already eyeing the construction of up to 10 nuclear power stations and the company is due to acquire a second power station. South Africa’s total energy consumption has grown from 20,000 megawatts in 1994 to 36,000 megawatts, the company says. In this context, Eskom is planning to spend $20 billion on a five-year renewal plan. The country currently produces approximately 94% of its energy from coal and 6% from the nuclear power station at Koeberg near Cape Town, where two reactors produce 1,800 megawatts. The proportion of nuclear energy is set to increase to 16% by 2025. Currently only 1% originates from renewable energy, which has led to protests from environmental activists and those opposed to nuclear power. (