CAPE TOWN – South Africa is mulling the re-establishment of its uranium enrichment and conversion facilities, which were dismantled during the apartheid era, as it seeks to secure fuel for a new fleet of nuclear power stations.
Africa’s largest economy, which announced more than 40 years ago that it would enrich uranium as part of a military-linked strategy during the Cold War, wants another 9,600 megawatts of nuclear energy to help shore up a power grid under pressure from rising demand and decades of under investment.
“The studies confirmed that fuel for the power reactor fleet should be manufactured in South Africa for reasons of security of supply when the nuclear component is expected to be around 13 percent of installed capacity,” Chantal Janneker, Necsa’s group spokeswoman, told Reuters.
Necsa, the country’s nuclear energy corporation, is being encouraged to revive its participation in the nuclear value chain – including enrichment, conversion and nuclear fuel manufacturing – to reduce South Africa’s current dependence on imported reactor fuels.
The country has some of the world’s largest uranium deposits and the new nuclear fleet is likely to use 465 metric tonnes of enriched uranium a year by 2030.
“Earlier feasibility studies have shown that the fuel requirements of a nuclear reactor fleet of about 10,000 megawatts makes uranium enrichment a viable undertaking,” Janneker said.
Necsa will investigate developing its own enrichment technology or partner with an international company.
However, power utility Eskom, which oversees the continent’s only nuclear power station Koeberg near Cape Town, said the plan was for the enrichment facilities to develop together, and not ahead, of the expansion programme so that fuel production plants can be economically sustainable.
“Eskom is in close liaison with Necsa to ensure that its nuclear fuel supply contracts are aligned with South Africa’s nuclear fuel production localisation strategies,” Tony Stott, a senior manager at Eskom’s generation division, told Reuters.
Necsa supplied nuclear fuel to the 1,800 MW Koeberg power station between 1988 and 1994, but discontinued the service because its operations were globally uncompetitive.
Areva and Toshiba’s Westinghouse Electric Corp at present supply Koeberg with 30 metric tonnes of enriched uranium a year for its two units.
POTENTIAL POLITICAL FALLOUT
The plan by South Africa, which voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons, takes place against the backdrop of rising global concern that countries, such as Iran, could use enrichment technology for weapons development. Iran denies these charges.
“Some political pressure can be expected. It is, however, generally accepted that a local enrichment capacity for peaceful purposes can be justified if the country has a local demand or expansion plan of 10 gigawatts nuclear,” Stott said.
As a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, South Africa is required to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor all nuclear materials in the country to verify they are not being diverted from peaceful activities.