This piece appeared in the Business Day on 1 November, 2017. The original article can be viewed here.
The new energy minister, David Mahlobo, appears to have a different set of advisers to previous incumbents.
For the past few years, his department has been telling South Africans that we need new nuclear power stations to provide additional electricity to meet the government’s growth and job creation targets, but Mahlobo appears to have changed tack.
If his first couple of weeks in office are anything to go by, nuclear power is now to be “sold” as the means by which SA meets the challenge of climate change.
Speaking on October 18 about the nuclear procurement, he stated that “whatever we do in the energy sector, we cannot degrade the environment”.
Days later, he told nuclear industry insiders that SA recognised the role nuclear power would play in helping it meet its carbon reduction targets, stating that nuclear power was “the lowest carbon emitter from all energy sources”. He concluded that the very future of the world was at stake.
Putting aside, if we can, the long list of problems with the proposed procurement, is it true that nuclear power is the best energy option to meet SA’s climate commitments? Is nuclear power, as Mahlobo claims, the lowest carbon emitter?
It is important to acknowledge that no energy source is carbon neutral and this includes all forms of renewable energy.
To evaluate Mahlobo’s claim, we must review the literature on life cycle analysis (LSA) of energy sources, which estimate the amount of carbon dioxide (CO²) emitted in grams per kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity generated for each respective source. The analysis takes into account all the CO² emitted during the life cycle of each source — from the mining of raw materials needed for construction to recycling and decommissioning.
LSA is not an exact science because there are many variables to consider. For example, components made in China (for example, solar photovoltaic) carry a heavier carbon burden because Chinese industry is largely coal-dependent, the life expectancy of energy sources is not always known, and carbon costs associated with the decommissioning of nuclear power stations, the disposal of high-level waste and the rehabilitation of mines are difficult to quantify.
This means that figures produced by LSAs are estimates. Nonetheless, they are important indicators of how much CO² each energy source produces.
If SA is to meet its carbon emission targets, it needs to act quickly. Evidence shows that wind and solar power sources can be generating power within two years, whereas the global average for nuclear power is 10 years
Academic peer-reviewed meta-analysis of LSAs shows that on average, nuclear power stations emit 60g of CO² per kWh. Similar meta-analysis of solar power options produces an average of 30g of CO² per kWh. Average figures for wind suggest about 15g of CO² per kWh. It is clear that nuclear power is far from being the lowest carbon emitter.
The problem with how CO² emissions are characterised by many within the nuclear lobby is that they fail to take into account the life cycle of nuclear power and instead focus on the absence of CO² emissions from reactors.
As Prof Manfred Lenzen of the University of Sydney notes, there is a tendency to ignore “uranium mining and milling, conversion of uranium ore to uranium hexafluoride, uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactor construction, reactor decommissioning, fuel reprocessing, nuclear waste disposal, mine site rehabilitation and transport throughout all stages”.
Other factors need to be considered. As more renewable capacity is introduced, economies of scale mean that CO² emissions keep falling.
The same cannot be said for nuclear. Researchers at Monash University show that high-quality uranium ore deposits are becoming scarce, meaning that more energy will be needed to mine and mill lower-quality ore, resulting in increased CO² emissions from nuclear.
A further problem is time. If SA is to meet its carbon emission targets, it needs to act quickly. Evidence shows that wind and solar power sources can be generating power within two years, whereas the global average for nuclear power is 10 years.
This does not bode well for SA if the megaproject examples of Medupi and Kusile are anything to go by. Corruption also delays the construction of nuclear power, as the delays to Brazil’s Angra-3 nuclear power station attest.
In his medium-term budget policy statement Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba lamented “the problem of surplus capacity”, burying the argument that SA needs nuclear because of potential energy shortages.
So what’s left to justify the proposed nuclear procurement? It would appear that climate change is the answer. But as with all the other ridiculous attempted justifications for nuclear, this argument is nonsense too.