The word ‘tragedy’ as defined by the German philosopher G F W Hegel describes a situation where two rights come into conflict. In energy terms, South Africa now appears to face just such a dilemma.

President Jacob Zuma and state energy company Eskom argue that 9.6GW of additional nuclear capacity is needed if South Africa is to rapidly industrialise, double its electricity consumption by 2050 and compete from a position of strength in an increasingly interconnected global marketplace.

For Greenpeace, nuclear power is outdated, dangerous and has the potential to disproportionately impact South Africa’s poorest citizens. Instead, African governments have a historic opportunity to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and invest in renewables such as wind, solar PV and natural gas.

In what is an increasingly bitter and politicised battle, it is possible that both sides are right; South Africa’s tragedy could be that improved living standards will come at an intolerable cost to the environment.

“South Africa is vast, has a population of around 55 million and is predominately powered by coal from the north-east of the country,” says Dr Kelvin Kemm, CEO of energy consultancy Nuclear Africa.

“South Africa is vast, has a population of around 55 million and is predominately powered by coal .”

“There is currently only one nuclear power plant in Africa, Koeberg in Cape Town, and it supplies around half the power to the Western Cape region − the equivalent of channelling half of London’s electricity from Rome – as well as African neighbours such as Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

“What South Africa needs is additional base load power for key industrial infrastructure such as mines and ports, and to drive electric trains across a country that is as large as Western Europe.”

“Nuclear power plants create unacceptable risks to the environment and human health, and are an expensive diversion from renewable energy and energy efficiency, which are required to stave off the worst impacts of global warming,” responds Penny-Jane Cooke of Greenpeace Africa.

“The South African Government’s proposed nuclear build programme is misguided as it will provide electricity too late to resolve the current energy and climate crisis − and at far too high a cost.”

Calculated risk: the cost of adding 9.6GW of nuclear capacity

The South African Government plans to build three power stations with up to three reactors per site, starting later this year with Oyster Bay 70km-80km south of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province.

“The story that the three nuclear power plants have been delayed to beyond 2030 is untrue,” says Kemm. “The first new facility is scheduled for 2026, with all three operational within the subsequent ten years. If you are going to build multiple plants it is best to do it in a production line process to minimise the cost.”

Construction estimates range from $50bn-100bn, proof, according to Greenpeace, that nuclear power is prohibitively expensive at a time when South Africa’s credit rating is just a notch above junk status.

“A report released by IRENA found that by 2025 – with the right regulatory and policy frameworks in place – average electricity costs could decrease 59% for solar PV, 35% for offshore wind, 26% for onshore wind, and up to 43% for concentrated solar power compared to 2015,” says Cooke.

“The nuclear industry is unable to compete with cutting-edge technology that delivers on time and in budget − and more cheaply than new coal or nuclear − and is threatened by how quickly renewable energy is growing. Despite what the nuclear industry tells us, building enough nuclear power stations to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would cost trillions of dollars.”

Kemm dismisses this and other such statistics as deliberately misleading and also takes issue with a report published in 2016 that estimates the levelised cost of electricity (LOCE) using nuclear power to be R1.30 per kW/h, compared with just R0.69 per kWh and R0.87 per kWh for wind and solar.

“Solar and wind is currently more expensive, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “Eskom’s average cost per KW/h is currently 83 cents; Koeberg is currently producing at around 35% of that.

“Electricity supply is the capital cost of the plant plus its fuel taken over the plant lifetime and I have significant problems with the theoretical and fictitious cost figures that environmental groups such as Greenpeace come up with.

“One of the tricks employed by the anti-nuclear lobby is that they use figures based on the upfront capital cost of a power station, calculate that out and then project it as the permanent cost lifetime of electricity supply. If you talk about the cost of nuclear you have to be fair and base it on a plant’s total operational lifetime, which includes the extremely low-cost of fuel for half a century.”

Electrifying South Africa: nuclear vs renewable power

Kemm insists that he has nothing against renewable energy alternatives such as solar PV and wind per se, but is adamant that they only have a limited role to play in South Africa’s future energy mix.

“South Africa is one of the best countries in the world for solar PV and wind, but only in remote residential areas where the intermittent nature of these renewable sources − say four hours of electricity a day − is acceptable,” he says. “Wind and solar should not be connected to the grid.

“South Africa is only 85% electrified, and the reason the remaining 15% of the population doesn’t have access to the grid is because they live in remote, mountainous areas such as KwaZulu-Natal.

“The pan-European system means that , say, when Germany – which has pledged to halve its consumption by 2050 − is short of power then that is compensated by supplies from neighbours such as France or Denmark; that’s a major insurance policy that we don’t have. The European model of plugging renewables into the grid and smart switching to get rid of fossil fuels and nuclear is just not possible in South Africa.”

“South Africa is one of the best countries in the world for solar PV and wind.”

Unsurprisingly, Cooke disagrees, citing a report published by Mainstream Renewable Power based on research from 18 wind and solar sites across South Africa in 2013, which shows that electricity generated from wind and solar resources closely follows South Africa’s electricity demand profile.

“The research further revealed that, when combined, wind and solar are significant contributors to base load power,” she counters. “This effectively busts one of the biggest myths created by the anti-renewables lobby: that we require coal and nuclear generation to provide for base load demand.

“According to the Department of Energy, the annual 24hr global solar radiation average is about 220W/m2 for South Africa compared with about 150W/m2 for parts of the US, and 100W/m2 for Europe and the UK. This makes South Africa’s local resource one of the highest in the world.”

Vested interests: playing politics with South Africa’s energy supply

The debate over nuclear power in South Africa has become increasingly politicised, with the government accused of corruption and at loggerheads with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Considering this, does President Zuma have sufficient credibility and support among government and the population to push through his controversial nuclear agenda and ensure the widespread power blackouts which have blighted the country remain a thing of the past?

“Stories of political interference in the nuclear programme are simply not true,” insists Kemm. “I am one of the selectors and have very high-level insight − I have witnessed no interference whatsoever.

“The idea that President Zuma would get to Russia and simply sign a reactor deal with President Putin without consulting engineers is ludicrous. There would be uproar in the technical community in South Africa, which is very well-respected by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA).

Greens activists imply that Africans should return to nature, till their fields using oxen and ploughs, and not live like people in First World cities like London,” he adds. “We want to see ten new cities the size of London in Africa in the next half a dozen years. I’d rather see that than no growth at all.”

“Our energy system and energy policies need to be decoupled from politics and vested interests,” Cooke responds. “Between Eskom’s very public anti-renewable energy campaign, and allegations of state capture around the nuclear deal being at the heart of moves against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, it is clear to see the political game-playing that is taking place in the energy landscape.

“South Africa’s future should now be focused on a solar rooftop revolution based on decentralised energy systems where energy can be generated close to the point of consumption, and people are compensated for the electricity that they generate. This would have a double impact of increasing efficiency, while allowing electricity production to finally be in the control of the people who use it.”