Reacting to the news from parliament this week that government plans, once again, to procure new nuclear, the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) says that decision-making from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) is moving South Africa in the wrong direction. According to the multi-faith environmental justice organisation, government continues to spend energy and critical time on nuclear power that has no chance of addressing the current energy crisis South Africans are facing. Due to the long build times and likely lengthy over-runs, the country will not see any new electricity from nuclear power on the grid for over a decade, at least.
“We contest that the IRP2019 allocates 2500MW of new nuclear electricity generation capacity. The IRP records a policy decision to commence preparations for a nuclear new build programme to the extent of 2500MW at a pace and scale the country can afford. Cost and affordability are critical issues in energy decision making. Globally, we are seeing huge reductions in cost of renewable energy. So, looking at affordability, there are no models that would suggest nuclear energy would be cheaper than renewables, now or in the future,” says SAFCEI’s Executive Director Francesca de Gasparis.
In parliament, the DMRE referred to studies and preliminary findings from its nuclear Request for Information (RFI) evaluation. SAFCEI have not seen these, and it does not appear to have been made public.
“We continue to request government to engage and consult the public, for whom this energy is meant, and to be transparent and share its plans, as is required in our Constitution and relevant legislation. We have been engaging with government on this matter since November 2020, and have continued to assert our right to make representations regarding the National Energy Regulator’s (NERSA) decision-making. This includes any decision on whether the Minister of Energy has complied with the suspensive conditions contained in NERSA’s August 2021 decision to concur with the Minister’s draft nuclear determination. We will be writing to NERSA, again, to re-assert our rights as the public, to be consulted, and we will continue to do so. It is important to make sure we have access to all the information needed to make informed and meaningful representations,” she adds.
Government representatives also commented that it may take a new approach to financing nuclear. However, SAFCEI advises caution to taking an Independent Power Producers (IPP) or any alternative approaches that might indebt South Africa for generations into the future. Again, due to the lack of information about cost, the organisation says it is not clear that this option would be less expensive and affordable to end-users. True costs for major energy systems like nuclear end up costing many times more than initially quoted. This is due to the expected delays and huge cost overruns, as seen on other major projects like Medupi and Kusile. SAFCEI states that it remains highly sceptical that this would be cheaper than other energy options currently.
“Furthermore, the comments in parliament suggest that South Africa could allow a foreign party – who has the right skills and capacity, “IPPs or other” – to build, own and operate new nuclear power stations (small modular or otherwise). This model allows the vendor – which is most likely a foreign company – to recoup their costs, which will come from tariffs charged to South Africans, through Eskom. But, since we have no way of knowing what these tariffs will be, and already South Africans are constantly seeing tariff increases, this is another point of concern,” she says.
“Additionally, when considering current geopolitics like Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, this type of model could put us in a difficult position. The political and other ramifications of such an approach need careful scrutiny. It may be in the political interest of our current government to work closely with Russia, but that does not necessarily reflect the interests or will of the people,” adds de Gasparis.
As an organisation fighting to promote energy justice, SAFCEI adds that the ongoing high levels of secrecy and lack of information shared with civil society, point to the fact that the ultimate costs to the public – monetary and other – should be and remain of great interest to the public. The statements made by the DMRE in parliament this week, demonstrate once again, that due to political interests, decisions are being made that will burden future generations with unnecessary and dangerous energy systems, while neglecting the urgent needs of South Africans who are facing unacceptable loadshedding and unaffordable price hikes from Eskom, daily.
She adds, “We also think it important to point out that experts say modular (small) nuclear reactors are not ready for market and this remains a speculative energy source under development. To our knowledge, there are no modular reactor options that have good prospects of being ready for commercialisation by 2030.”
“For any procurement of new nuclear energy for South Africa to be lawful, the public must have a chance to comment and input, prior to NERSA making its decision on whether the Minister of Energy has complied with the suspensive conditions contained in NERSA’s August 2021 decision to concur with the Minister’s draft nuclear determination. To be able to do so, the process must be transparent and relevant information put before NERSA by the Minister must be made publicly available to inform public comment. Otherwise, once again we will see the government putting the cart before the horse, for which South Africans will have to pay the price.