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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Brett Ormrod

The viability of nuclear power as a decarbonisation strategy given South Africa’s emerging climate change agenda

South Africa (SA) recently committed to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions trajectory by 34% below ‘Business as Usual’ levels by 2020 and 40% by 2025 in order to contribute to global climate change (CC) mitigation efforts. However, this will prove challenging because the national electricity public utility, Eskom, continues to commission more fossil-fuelled power stations as a result of the country’s large coal reserves.

Globally, new nuclear power plants (NPP) have been designed to be safer and more reliable, and coupled with lower running costs, can provide a viable and comparatively low carbon alternative to traditional coal-fired power plants (CFPP). Since the construction of an 1800MW NPP in 1985, SA has yet to extend its successful nuclear power (NP) program. This dissertation will establish why this is the case by addressing the infrastructural, social, political and financial barriers facing SA’s nuclear energy sector alongside its CC mitigation goals.

In order to examine these barriers, an energy generation mix model was constructed to measure the electricity generation capacity, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and cost of four maximally different scenarios. These scenarios are namely a ‘Business as Usual Scenario’, ‘Nuclear Scenario’, ‘Gas & Renewables Scenario’ and finally, a ‘Balanced Scenario’. Each scenario accounted for the existing and committed-build power plants, as well as including a mix of different electricity generating technologies that was unique to each scenario. Emission factors were derived from first principles for existing plants, whilst the emissions over the full life cycle of new plants were considered. Interviews were held in SA with key policy makers at Eskom to determine the barriers of increasing NP in SA, given the scenarios mentioned above.

It was found that negative public perception, even after the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster, is not the main barrier as it is in many other countries. Rather, the political and social barriers are considered to be much more pertinent. The lack of qualified engineers, scientists, technicians and skills tradesmen has been identified by Eskom’s Chief Nuclear Officer as the greatest challenge in implementing a new nuclear build program. The South African Government (GoSA) must commit to the construction of three NPPs as soon as possible if they are to try and meet their current emissions targets. The rollout of this program can progress in two ways: either a localisation of the nuclear industry or alternatively, turnkey NPPs need to be commissioned. No new CFPPs should be considered in the near term unless a carbon capture and storage system is included. Natural gas is likely to play a much more dominant role in SA’s electricity mix, given the large gas reserves recently discovered in the country.