South Africa: opportunity for nuclear entrepreneurs

(Photo: AP)

April 27, 2012, Friday/ 14:26:00

Power-starved South Africa plans to increase its nuclear reactor capacity and energy companies from around the world are lining up to be involved.

The project has an estimated cost of 300 billion rand (more than $40 billion), South African Energy Minister Dipuo Peters said, but it is still unclear what contracts will be offered or how much of the business will be set aside for local companies.

South Africa is the only country in Africa with a nuclear power plant, the two-reactor Koeberg facility near Cape Town that has been operating since 1984. It is committed to building at least six more reactors at three or four sites by 2030 as part of a plan to decrease its dependence on electricity plants that run on greenhouse gas-emitting coal. South Africa now depends on the coal plants for at least 90 percent of its energy needs, and Eskom, the state electricity utility, also is a major supplier to South Africa's neighbors. An energy crisis in 2008 blamed on poor planning led to frequent and widespread blackouts that hit output in mining and other key industries. The government fears energy supplies will be tight for the next few years, hobbling its efforts to expand the economy and create jobs in a country where a quarter of the work force is unemployed. South Africa wants to build local skills and local business as it expands its nuclear capacity, Peters said. "It is not just about building power plants, but how we build them," she said at a nuclear seminar organized by a labor group. "We are not about to turn South Africans into mixers of concrete."

Peters presented the plans for the reactors, along with those for wind and solar plants, just days after a quake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, sending three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant into meltdown there. Germany permanently shut down one of its aging reactors because of what happened at Fukushima. But Peters said she was confident the new nuclear technology South Africa planned to import was safe. No serious incidents have been reported at Koeberg during its 28 years in operation.

South Africa is not alone in forging ahead with nuclear projects following Fukushima. Turkey went ahead with plans to build its first nuclear power plant after Fukushima. And even as Japanese engineers were fighting to cool reactors, officials from Russia and Belarus were signing a deal for a $9.4 billion nuclear plant in Belarus.

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