Nuclear energy reliable and inexpensive in the long run

Thermal power plant with large chimney
Thermal power plant with large chimney
Image: 123rf\Anna Vaczi

There is a black American intellectual and deep thinker by the name of Dr Thomas Sowell. He is an economist and he produces comments of profound wisdom, such as: "Much of the social history of the western world, over the past three decades, has been the history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.”

I am a scientist, a physicist, and during my years of training I had to learn to accept that which is definitely true, because often the truth is masked by what appears to be impossible. It is human instinct to want to believe that which you like.

When the famous physicist Albert Einstein met silent movie star, Charlie Chaplin, he said something to the effect: "I really admire your work, you don't say a word yet everyone understands what you mean."  Charlie Chaplin replied: "Well I really admire your work, you are much more famous than me and you say so many things, but nobody understands a word."

That is really amusing, but really true.  Today virtually everybody has heard of Einstein and can possibly say; ‘Theory of Relativity’ but have no idea what it is.  Einstein said things like; ‘the faster you travel the more time slows down.’ Such concepts sounded impossible, that by travelling fast you would not age so fast.  Nobody wanted to believe this but in due course it was proven to be true. The GPS system on your cell phone or in your car relies on this Einstein reality, because the GPS satellites orbiting the Earth travel so fast that their passage of time is different to that of your car.

So let us think about energy, that means the ‘electricity price’ when the chips are down. It also means the survival of the industry of the country.

All energy, and I will talk electricity not petrol, has to come from some fundamental economically viable source before it ends up at the plug in your house.  Much of electricity generation starts out from burning something combustible; like wood, paper, braai charcoal or coal. Powering your braai with braai charcoal is fine, but powering a power station with braai charcoal, wood, or paper is a non-starter because there not enough of it to burn, at a reasonable price.  The answer is coal; South Africa has one of the biggest coal resources in the world.

So that is exactly what we do, we carry vast amounts of coal to coal power stations to burn in boilers. But transporting the coal is a significant part of the cost, so we have built all the modern coal power stations near the coal mines, in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.

If the coal flows smoothly to the power station and the power station is in good shape, then coal-generated electricity just runs all day, everyday, no problem.

But South Africa is very large, in fact as large as the whole of Western Europe. The coal is all situated in the far north east of our country, putting the Western Cape at potential risk, due to it's extreme distance from the fundamental energy source.  The distance from the coalfields to Cape Town is the same distance as Rome to London.  So, half a century ago, far sighted electricity planners took a very bold decision, for the time, and decided to build a nuclear power station near Cape Town, to ensure the security of the region.

It is today the only nuclear power station in Africa and is recognised internationally is one of the best run nuclear power stations in the world. Today Koeberg produces the cheapest electricity in the country, with the Western Cape being about 50% nuclear powered. The other 50% of their power essentially comes all the way from the coal fields.

A nuclear power station uses uranium as fuel. It does not burn some feedstock chemically. Nuclear power, rather magically, turns the uranium atoms directly into energy, in line with a very famous Einstein equation; E= mc2.  Atoms are split by a process known as ‘nuclear fission’ and energy is released. This energy then produces heat to boil water and from that point on steam is produced to drive turbines to produce electricity in virtually the same manner as the coal power process.

Uranium contains millions of times more energy than coal.  So if Koeberg were run on coal it would need six train loads of coal per day, but in fact it only uses one truck load of nuclear fuel per year. So fuel transport is no problem for nuclear power.

Then some years ago some people claimed that the earth was heating up due to carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power stations. So; ‘stop using coal,’ they said.  I don't agree with this man-made carbon dioxide argument, nor do many other thousands of scientists. However many people would rather listen to Hollywood film stars then to scientists who really understand these things, as Thomas Sowell pointed out.

So activist groups said; ‘use what nature gave us; wind and sunlight’.  That solution sounds good, but you only get sunlight in the daytime and you only get wind when the wind blows.  Another major consideration is that both of those sources are very dilute, so you need thousands and thousands of wind and solar systems.

Coal energy comes from burning coal. Wind energy comes from the sun warming the ground, which leads to winds. The rainbow has blue at one side of it and red at the other.  Solar PV electricity (PhotoVoltaic) comes from the blue part of the solar light spectrum.  High energy blue light knocks electrons out of atoms of silicon in the solar panels.  These electrons produce a flow of direct current electricity, at a low voltage.  That is the electricity which comes out of a solar panel.  Einstein explained the photoelectric effect and interestingly was awarded the Nobel Prize for that insight, not for his discovery of E = mc2.

But to harvest solar power you need to go to sunny places like the Northern Cape.  To harvest wind power you need to go to places which have regular wind. That usually means; coastal strips.

An important point to bear in mind is that you then have to bring that electricity all the way from the source to where you want to use it, like an industrial centre.  So the real cost of wind and solar electricity is the cost at the point of consumption, not the cost at the front gate of the wind or solar farm.  Sadly, people keep quoting wind and solar prices at the front gate, at a time when the wind is blowing and during the daytime when the sun is shining.  Then you see quoted prices like 70 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). 


The public generally don't get told what it costs to bring the solar and wind energy to the industrial or private consumer, at night, when you want the lights on.  Eskom reported that that figure for wind energy cost for last year was 222 cents per kilowatt hour (R2.22c/kWh) which is vastly different to the price region of 70c/kWh. Remember that Koeberg is producing continuous electricity for Eskom at less than 40 c/kWh.  The price component of transporting electricity to the consumer is known as 'system costs' and the politicians and others tend to leave that bit out when they talk to the public about prices.

Every time that the wind stops blowing, at night, you get zero electricity from wind and solar, so Eskom has to switch to some backup supply; like coal or nuclear, which really does run all of the time.  The cost of maintaining the necessary backup in place is also not added to the solar and wind cost.

Wind and solar cannot be included in any load shedding calculations.  Think about it.  You cannot produce a supply prediction for the public based on; 'maybe it's available.'

The proposed nuclear construction program, of building three nuclear power stations sequentially over a period of 10 to 15 years is critical.  The country desperately needs this program.  The proposed nuclear cost is significantly less than the magical trillion rand number trumpeted by certain vocal critics and it is not going to be spent all at one time, as is claimed by them. The nuclear construction program has also been designed to consist of a 50% localisation target. Who do you think will drive the bulldozers, pour the concrete, erect the concrete walls, lay the piping, rig the cables, and so on?  Will this work be done by Russians, Chinese, French or American workers, and various foreign craftsmen, or will we pay South Africans to do that?

The proposed nuclear build will push much needed money into local construction companies, project management companies, manufacturing companies and many others.  The country desperately needs that local economic thrust.  South Africa has nuclear scientists and engineers of world-class. We know how to build these impressive and reliable structures. We would not import ‘a reactor in a box’.

If you are worrying about load shedding now, what do you think the situation will look like in half a dozen years time, if the country does not have a significant reliable source of electricity?

Why are business and industry leaders not seeing this?

Now for another quote from the wisdom of Dr Thomas Sowell; "When you want to help people you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear".

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and CEO of Nuclear Africa (Pty) Ltd, a project management company based in Pretoria.