Andre Pienaar Speaks on Nuclear Energy as a Long-Term Solution to South-Africa’s Energy Crisis

Andre Pienaar addresses local authorities, business- and industry leaders on Nuclear Energy as a long-term solution to South-Africa’s energy crisis at the Afrikaner Afrika Initiative’s Energy Indaba in Cape Town.

Remarks at the Energy Indaba, Cape Town, South-Africa.

14 November 2022 

Einstein said: “Everything is energy and that is all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want, and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy, it is physics.” 

In the face of South Africa’s protracted energy crisis, it has been inspiring to see the positivity that radiates from the South African people as they continue to endure in building-in and building-back the country. Today’s gathering, which is focused on collectively finding energy solutions across communities, cities, and municipalities, is a testament to the willpower of the South African people. 

I want to thank the Afrikaner Africa Initiative (AAI), the Konrad Adenuaer Foundation (KAS), Afriform, the Spanish Embassy in South Africa, and C5 Capital’s partners, Liquid Technologies, for their support of the Energy Indaba, and for helping to make this event possible. 

Today, I would like to discuss the important theme of Nuclear Energy, the potential of advanced nuclear energy as one of the keys to South Africa and Africa’s long term energy security. 

Nuclear energy does not promise an immediate, short-term fix to South Africa’s energy crisis. It does, however, provide a viable long-term solution in the renewable energy sector. It also holds the potential to be a permanent solution to the crisis altogether. 

Nuclear energy is star power. Unlike coal, which has been a source of energy since the mid-18th century, mankind’s exploration and development of nuclear energy is a young endeavor. The first commercial nuclear reactor was built in Pennsylvania in the US in the 1950s. Comparatively, in South Africa, the first commercial nuclear reactor was established even more recently in the Koeberg facility outside of Cape Town, becoming operational in 1984. 

When nuclear energy was coming on stream, coal became the dominant energy player in industrialized economies in the 1960s. We now know, after 300 years of application, that coal emissions release harmful amounts of carbon dioxide. These effects have repercussions on a global scale, affecting the fragile blue shield that enables our beautiful planet to sustain complex life, including that of human life as one of its species. 

Nuclear, having only been around for 70 years, is still in its preliminary stages of development in relation to its applications, strengths, and weaknesses. Even during this nascent stage, nuclear energy has already been established as a reliable source of cost-effective base load energy in fifty countries. The following benefits are certain: 

  1. Bill Gates assesses that nuclear energy’s safety record is better than most other energy sources. 
  1. In the US, Canada, the UK, and the European Union (EU) we have also reached a consensus that nuclear energy can combat climate change due to its zero-carbon emissions. 
  1. The US Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, recently said nuclear energy can help us advance our climate goals, make affordable energy accessible, enhance energy security and create new jobs. 

This is not to say that our application of nuclear energy has not had limitations and challenges. The Chernobyl reactor melt down during the Soviet Union, the Three Mile Island safety incident in the US and the impact of a tsunami on the stability of the reactors in Fukushima, Japan, have sparked fears of catastrophe, which still impact the reputation of nuclear as an energy source today. 

Even though the safety record of the industry has seen consistent improvement through regulation and engineering, challenges remain that are yet to be addressed. For example, the nuclear waste for the existing fleet of Generation III water cooled reactors has not been solved. 

Today, despite these challenges, nuclear energy is experiencing a renaissance in investment in the industry, driven by the following two developments: 

  • We are seeing an unprecedented level of innovation across the value chain, from small nuclear reactors to that of nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion – the fusion of atoms based on elements of hydrogen – holds the promise of the cleanest and most abundant form of energy known to human civilization. 
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the weaponization of energy by the Kremlin against the civilian population in Ukraine and against the civilian populations in Europe confirmed the valuable role that nuclear energy plays in energy security. As a result, most countries including Germany have decided to extend the life of their reactors. 

Nuclear provides 10-12% of energy produced globally, 30% of which is clean energy. This percentage increases to 30% in advanced industrial economies like the US and the UK, out of which 50% is clean energy. 

There are 50 countries operating 437 nuclear reactors with a combined electricity capacity of 393 Gigawatts. Currently, there are 57 new reactors under construction with at least another 100 in planning. 

In Africa, there are 10 active research reactors, out of which the only operational commercial nuclear reactor is the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in the Western Cape in South Africa. 

The impressive stature of the Koeberg nuclear facility cannot be overstated. Koeberg possesses an impeccable 40-year safety record. It provides 5 to 10% of South Africa’s energy, and 50% of Western Cape’s energy, providing a total of 1,340 MW of energy. It is the cheapest source of energy in ESKOM’s fleet, and it is the most reliable source of base load energy on South Africa’s grid. 

As a result of the decades-long investment in Koeberg, South Africa has managed to build a sophisticated nuclear ecosystem. Out of this ecosystem we have seen the formulation of a respected regulator, well established regulations, a highly skilled workforce of approximately 2,700 people, several universities that train a pipeline of new nuclear engineers, and a longstanding membership as a trusted member of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). 

Today, more than 30 African nations are exploring nuclear to overcome Africa’s energy poverty, and to meet Africa’s growing energy needs. Over 600M Africans do not have access to electricity. The loadshedding and energy supply disruptions that plague the daily life of South Africans is a norm faced by most African economies, with more than 80% of African businesses experiencing disruptions of supply. Over and above these current challenges, Africa’s energy needs are expected to double by 2040. 

In conjunction with renewables like solar, wind and water, advanced nuclear can produce a long-term solution to Africa’s growing energy needs, and form part of an equitable transition away from coal, which consists of 80% of South Africa and Africa’s energy supply. 

South Africa and the Western Cape’s sophisticated home-grown nuclear industry poses a unique opportunity for the country to enter strategic partnerships with advanced nuclear countries like the US, UK, Canada, and the IAEA, to bring nuclear energy to meet Africa’s energy needs. 

There is no reason African countries should embark on huge capital-intensive reactor builds based on the outdated Russian VVER design, accompanied by all its unsolved legacy safety, waste challenges and attendant corruption. The fact that Russia tried to sell such a reactor package to South Africa under Zuma’s presidency for $80 bn – a startling 4 times the average cost of such a project – is a cautionary tale for Africa. 

Why should South Africa purchase outdated nuclear technology if the country’s own nuclear industry has already researched and created the most advanced nuclear reactor design, as well as established the relevant global partnerships for its implementation. 

The pebble bed modular reactor, or PMBR project, was a cutting-edge, South-African born advanced nuclear reactor project, which saw approximately 2000 nuclear engineers working on its development locally between 1994 and 2010. As early as 2006, the PMBR team was under contract with the US Department of Energy to build one of the very first small nuclear reactors in the world. Unfortunately, President Zuma discontinued this innovative and inspirational project in 2010 in his attempt to buy outdated reactors from Russia at a hugely inflated price. 

Thankfully, the work of South Africa’s advanced nuclear engineers is not lost and has continued to flourish globally. 

One example is X-Energy: an advanced nuclear energy company that was established by a visionary US entrepreneur, Dr Kam Ghaffarian, alongside South African born engineers Dr Martin van Staden and Dr Eben Mulder. The company is currently led by Clay Sell, former United States Deputy Secretary of Energy, in Washington, D.C. 

X-energy is now under contract with the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Nuclear Reactor Demonstration program to establish the first Generation IV Advanced Nuclear Reactor in Washington State. 

Small modular nuclear (SMR) reactors like the PMBR design make use of TRISO fuel. This means the enriched uranium is encased in three layers of graphite. This, along with the incredible reactor design, means a SMR cannot melt down and thus poses no proliferation risk. Waste is much reduced and can be stored onsite. Micro reactors are mobile and are transportable by truck or plane. This technology has been used safely in aircraft carriers and submarines for decades and can now be safely applied for civilian energy needs. 

SMRs (Small Modular Reactors) make alternative sources of finance possible. The venture capital industry invested $4 bn into SMR and nuclear fusion innovation in 2021. The private sector has a growing role to play in the application of advanced nuclear energy. One can compare this to the development of computing power: old mainframe computers were in the domain of the government in the 1960s and 70s. Then, with the onset of desktops, computing innovation became the domain of corporations, as laptops became available to individuals. 

The recent partnership between Dow and X-energy is a notable example of this: they announced that they have signed a letter of intent which will help Dow advance its carbon emissions reduction goals through the development and deployment of X-energy’s advanced small modular nuclear technology in the U.S. 

This model can be followed in South Africa. For example, the mining industry consumes 30% of ESKOM’s power generation capacity and industry 52%. SMRs as an additional source of energy generation can release this capacity on ESKOM’s grid back to the country and the population. 

There are now new partnership routes available to apply SMRs for Africa’s energy needs. At the recent inter-ministerial meeting of the IAEA in Washington D.C., the US and Japan announced a partnership to enable Ghana to establish a SMR with two innovative programs – Winning Edge with a Coalition for Advanced Nuclear Energy (WECAN) and Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible use of SMRs (FIRST). During COP27, the US State Department announced the Nuclear Futures Package to support developing countries with advanced nuclear with both Ghana and Kenya joining the program. 

All of this opens exciting new possibilities, not only to meet South Africa’s own energy needs, but also for South Africa to use advanced nuclear energy as a powerful source to help lead Africa’s development and to help end poverty through energy altogether. This vision for South Africa – in partnership with the democracies that make up 65% of Africa’s trade and 70% of its long-term investment – to use the powerful potential of advanced nuclear energy as a tool to help end poverty in Africa was at the core of the original vision of the PMBR project. 

We must strain our minds above today’s current difficulties to remember our own potential and rediscover our energy to bring about positive change. South Africa and the Western Cape still has all the resources and international partnerships necessary to pursue this vision. 

As Mandela said, when we are faced with a challenge: “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.”