Can South Africa manage a nuclear new-build programme?

It should be obvious to anybody that the finance minister cannot keep allocating money to improved housing, medical care, education, social grants, and more, if the country is not producing industrial growth. National growth will only result from people actually doing things. People have to roll up their sleeves and start working.

Dr. Kelvin Kemm

A perfect project to fit into this plan of action is a large-scale nuclear power build.

The scientific community calculated the total cost of the nuclear power build as being about R650-billion, not the R1-trillion figure so frequently quoted. A point which is often ignored is that there is a target of 50% localisation in the project. Another point frequently ignored is that the total project will span a decade, which is longer than the three year span of the annual national budget figures. So it is not R650-million all at once, but rather a sustained decade-long major infrastructure project.

Even without a 50% localisation target, the localisation will happen anyway. A South African will be driving the bulldozer to make site access roads; South Africans will be pouring the concrete for the plant’s foundations; and the same is true for the water supply, sewage, electrical systems, plant lighting, and so on. In the same way, South Africans will install the electrical generators, heat exchangers and the electrical control panels.

Infrastructure development initiatives are all tied up in the nuclear build. The site and surrounding area will need improved roads, new bridges, water supply, electrical supply, housing for workers, food supply for workers, transport, and so on.

Such major activity would all be a huge financial stimulus to whichever province gets the first new nuclear plant.

Although the local municipality within which the proposed site resides would improve its water reticulation, roads, and other amenities, the nuclear project planners would, the in partnership with municipality, ensure that larger, more comprehensive infrastructure systems are developed.

The proposed site, south of Port Elizabeth, extends as far as 100 km from the actual construction site. This means that, for example, the harbours at Port Elizabeth and at the COEGA industrial development zone would have to be capable of bringing large tonnage assemblies ashore. Roads and bridges may have to be improved to accommodate this. This would be followed by additional power lines, etc.

Such construction needs highly skilled welders and machinists. We have such skills in the country, but nowhere near enough. The nuclear build will supply the incentive for more world-class welders and other skilled workers to be trained.

Providing skills means providing a livelihood. Becoming a master-craftsman is good for the growth of the nation. The nuclear project will provide such skills.

Collaborating private companies is exactly what a growth economy needs. The government can’t build a nuclear power plant. Governments don’t do things like that. The only way to do it is by massive use of private companies. They must be profit-driven. They must be given the opportunity to make a good profit, and they must be held to account if they step out of line, or fail to deliver.

Nuclear power projects are not inherently prone to cost overruns and time delays, no matter what anyone tells you. Koeberg was built on time and on budget by mostly South African teams. If we could do that 40 years ago why not now again, with much improved modern methods.

The United Arab Emirates is building a nuclear power station called Barakah. This is probably the same type that South Africa would build. The primary foreign partner is South Korea, building an improved design of a US reactor design. They say that they are on time and budget, and on track to produce electricity in 2017.

South Africa needs really good project management on the nuclear build. We need serious collaboration, carefully structured. Better than we did when we built soccer stadiums for the 1995 World Cup on time, under pressure, in collaboration, for the good of the country.

For a good nuclear build which is on-time, on-budget, that the world will applaud, we need good organisation, and good communications. We have all the other bits and pieces of the ‘nuclear expedition’ scattered around the country, one way or another.

Finally, South Africa has all the water it needs in giant reservoirs called the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Nuclear power stations can provide desalination as a by-product giving us both additional electricity and additional drinking water.

I believe South Africa can manage a nuclear new-build programme using teamwork and collaboration on an international scale.

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