Tuesday, October 12, 2010

South Africa: South Africa charting out new nuclear power strategy

By Jerome Mwanda

Courtesy of
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NAIROBI (IDN) - South Africa is charting out a new nuclear power strategy that includes cooperation deals with China and South Korea. The country's minister of energy and minerals Dipuo Peters has emphasised the need to "gravitate away" from fossil fuels, primarily coal from the north of the country.

"We are finalizing all the preparatory work in this regard," says Peters in the foreword to a plan that includes a sub-program to improve the governance and regulation of the nuclear sector and a media engagement programme to inculcate the challenges in the energy sector overall.

A public consultation on nuclear energy is being organised but Peters says: "There is no doubt that nuclear (energy) will play a key role in the base-load generating capacity in the next few years... This should then lead us to a projected presence of the next generation base-load nuclear power plants in the period beyond 2020."

"Included in our plans is the conclusion of a number of bilateral agreements in the nuclear industry as well as establishing new strategic relationships," Peters writes in the plan.

One nuclear bilateral was completed October 8 with South Korea. The nuclear cooperation agreement that is a prerequisite for trade was signed off in Seoul by Peters and acting minister of foreign affairs Sing Kak-soo. The two countries agreed to promote research and development, including personnel exchanges. A similar deal is expected soon with China, according to the London-based World Nuclear News (WNN).

Spokesmen from the ministry of energy were not available to comment on a "nuclear transaction" described in the plan. This is to be approved by parliament, but no dates were given for progress towards the goal.

Overall energy plans for South Africa include the continuation of the grid connection program to bring basic power services to 150,000 households each year to 2013 in addition to over 3.5 million homes electrified since 1994.

The South African national utility Eskom announced a dramatic expansion programme in January 2008 in the wake of having successfully operated two pressurized water reactors since the 1980s to supply 6 percent of the country's electricity.

The company approached the French Areva and U.S. transnational Westinghouse for bids on a bulk order of up to 12 reactors with the aim of establishing nuclear power at about 25% of supply and a budget of up to about $12 billion.

But this ambitious idea was to founder on domestic political turmoil and the growing worldwide financial crisis. Eskom backed away in December 2008 "due to the magnitude of the investment".

Two years later the country is renewing plans to expand nuclear generation.

Presently, South Africa's two nuclear reactors are generating 5% of its electricity. The country's first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1984.

Electricity consumption in South Africa has been growing rapidly since 1980 and the country is part of the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), with extensive interconnections. Total installed generating capacity in the SAPP countries is 54.7 GWe, of which around 80% is South African, mostly coal-fired, and largely under the control of the state utility Eskom.

Eskom supplies about 95% of South Africa's electricity and approximately 45% of Africa's. Of its total installed net capacity of 40.5 GWe (44.2 GWe gross), coal-fired stations account for 34.3 GWe and nuclear 1.8 GWe.

Eskom procures conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication services on world markets. Nearly half of its enrichment is from Tenex, in Russia. However, historically South Africa has sought self-sufficiency in its fuel cycle.

The South African nuclear industry dates back to the mid-1940s, when the predecessor organisation to the Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC) was formed. In 1959, the government approved the creation of a domestic nuclear industry and planning began the next year on building a research reactor, in cooperation with the U.S. Atoms for Peace program.

The Pelindaba site near Pretoria was established in 1961, and the 20 MWt Safari-1 reactor there went critical in 1965. In 1970, the Uranium Enrichment Corporation (UCOR) was established as South Africa commenced an extensive nuclear fuel cycle program, as well as the development of a nuclear weapons capability. In 1985, UCOR was incorporated into the AEC, which became the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) in 1999.

Enrichment was undertaken at Valindaba (also referred to as Pelindaba East) adjacent to the Pelindaba site by the unique Helikon aerodynamic vortex tube process developed in South Africa, based on a German design.

Construction of the Y-Plant pilot uranium enrichment plant commenced in 1971 and was completed in 1975 by UCOR. At this time, the USA stopped exporting highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel for the Safari-1 reactor in protest against the construction of Y-Plant and South Africa's nuclear weapons programme.

Due to technical problems, Y-Plant only started producing 45%-enriched uranium in 1979 and in 1981 the first fuel assemblies for Safari-1 from Valindaba were fabricated. Operations at Y-Plant ceased in 1990 and the plant has been dismantled under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.

On the neighbouring Pelindaba site, construction on a semi-commercial enrichment plant commenced in the late 1970s. This Z-Plant began commissioning in 1984, with full production in 1988. It had a capacity of 300,000 SWU/yr and supplied 3.25%-enriched uranium for the Koeberg plant. (Originally fuel for Koeberg was imported, but at the height of sanctionsl the AEC was asked to set up and operate conversion, enrichment and fuel manufacturing services.) Z-Plant was uneconomic and closed in 1995.

Both centrifuge and molecular laser isotope processes were also being explored. Construction of the prototype module for the Molecular Laser Isotope Separation (MLIS) project was carried out in the Y-Plant building. The MLIS program started in 1983 and was joined by Cogema of France in a 50:50 funding arrangement in 1995. In 1997 the program was cancelled due to technological difficulties and AEC budget cuts.

A 2007 draft nuclear energy policy outlined an ambitious program to develop all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, including a return to conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication and also reprocessing of used fuel as strategic priorities related to energy security. A new 5.0 to 10.0 million SWU/yr centrifuge enrichment plant built in partnership with Areva, Urenco or Tenex was envisaged, the larger version allowing scope for exports.