Mineral Resources and Energy minister Gwede Mantashe left many scratching their heads again last week after a briefing of mostly foreign correspondents in Johannesburg.
It came as little surprise when the Minister reiterated government’s hackneyed argument that South Africa would be remiss if it failed to exploit its abundant coal resources, but suggested it do so in a more environmentally sustainable way.
No mention was made, as has become the norm, that new coal-fired generation is no longer South Africa’s cheapest generation option, following the steep decline in solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind costs over the past five years.
In fact, the draft 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) – which Mantashe has promised will be converted, following Cabinet-approved adjustments, into official policy in the coming weeks – shows unequivocally that the combination of solar PV, wind and flexible generation currently represents the cheapest way of adding new generation capacity for South Africa, even when such flexibility is derived from expensive imported gas, which is but one of several flexible technologies available.
It was also arguably foreseeable that the Minister would hold the prevailing policy line that “all technologies”, including nuclear, should remain a consideration for South Africa’s future electricity system. Again, no mention of the cost differential, which, in the case of nuclear, would run into tens of billions, sterilising electricity-intensive industry and penalising consumers for multiple decades to come.
What was somewhat surprising, however, was the Minister’s reference to “modular” nuclear reactors and the fact that such solutions might be included in the next iteration of the IRP, the latest draft of which is due to serve before Cabinet in the next days or weeks.
Being relatively new in the position, it is possible that Mantashe was referring not to a specific technological solution but rather a new nuclear capacity that should be added incrementally, as opposed to the previous vision of adding a massive 9 600 MW of new nuclear capacity over what would have been an incredibly short period, given the propensity for nuclear projects to take far longer to implement than initally advertised.
If Mantashe was indeed referring to modular or small nuclear reactors, however, his statement exhibits worrying naivety, dripping with irony.
It is naïve in the sense that, while there is indeed international interest in reactors with capacities of between 300 MW and 600 MW, such solutions (as is the case with so-called clean-coal generators) are not yet commercially available.
It is ironic, as it was the South African government that pulled the plug on the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), owing to ongoing cost overruns and deeply uncertain prospects for market uptake. The PBMR, which Eskom was at one stage looking to resurrect as the Advanced High Temperature Reactor, never reached the stage of a demonstration reactor, never mind a genuine commercial proposition.
As a master of the political arts, perhaps Mantashe is merely managing some extremely prickly vested interests in the coal and nuclear industries.