South Africa’s Nuclear Future

KoebergnpsSouth Africa’s nuclear energy program took a great leap forward this past week, as the country’s government came to a USD 50 billion agreement with the French state-owned firm, Areva, to build eight new nuclear reactors. This comes on the heels of a major deal with the Russian government back in September that also promised eight reactors. On top of this, South Africa is reportedly expected to sign another accord with China, and has also been pursuing a nuclear deal with Japan. These negotiations will prove to be fruitful for Africa’s most industrialized nation, which currently has the continent’s only nuclear power plant. Heavy dependence on coal and stressed power grids have compelled South Africa to aggressively pursue alternative forms of energy in recent years. This is a drastic turn of events for a country that gave up its nuclear weapons program just 25 years ago.

South Africa’s nuclear program can be traced back to the 1950s, when the government began to experiment with nuclear material for peaceful purposes. Tapping into its vast uranium reserves, the government began to develop alternative ways to satisfy the country’s electricity demands. A nuclear plant was built in Koeberg, near Cape Town, and the first reactor was commissioned in 1984.  Around the same time, however, the nation also established a path towards nuclear weapon proliferation. In 1974, Prime Minister John Vorster approved the development of nuclear explosives for peaceful applications, and the first device was completed five years later.

But in 1979, the apartheid government made a critical decision to focus its nuclear program for military purposes. This was due to its rapidly declining international standing: its participation in the UN General Assembly was suspended and the UN Security Council declared a mandatory oil and weapons arms embargo. Furthermore, the white-minority regime feared encirclement from the black-dominated governments in neighboring countries such as Angola and Zimbabwe. As a result, during the 1980s, South Africa utilized a nuclear deterrence strategy to develop six devices in total.

By the end of the decade, however, the government found that this plan was only an obstacle to reintegration into global politics. F.W. de Klerk, who was elected  Prime Minister in 1989, put South Africa on a path back to normalization of international relations. De Klerk approved the termination of the nuclear weapons program and oversaw the disassembly of all weapons, making South Africa the only nation to ever fully retract from nuclear proliferation.

Since then, South Africa’s nuclear capacity has remained limited, as the two reactors in the Koeberg plant have continued to be the country’s only source of nuclear power (just five percent of all electricity production). In the 2010 Integrated Electricity Resource Plan, the government made nuclear energy a high priority for future energy supply. Since then, it has focused on efforts to diversify from coal in order to keep up with growing electricity demand.

Today, France seems like a natural nuclear trade partner for South Africa. In fact, Areva was responsible for building the first two reactors 30 years ago. The two nations have a strong economic relationship – France is the ninth-biggest supplier to South Africa and 16th-biggest consumer of its goods. Relations also strengthened during President François Hollande’s visit last year, which resulted in the signing of critical energy deals to build solar and thermal plants. The country’s wide variety of negotiations illustrate its newfound ambitions for expansion of its nuclear power capacity.

Moreover, South Africa is not alone in the region in this pursuit of nuclear power. Africa’s recent growth and rising electricity demand has motivated several governments to explore the nuclear option in the near future--a telling sign of the potential market for nuclear energy on the continent. The traditional forms of energy supply, coal and hydropower, may not be enough to satisfy skyrocketing electricity demands in many of Africa’s expanding economies. Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda have all expressed serious interest in developing their nuclear programs.

Finally, while nuclear power does have a great amount of benefits, it is not without costs: high infrastructure support, proper regulatory oversight, and of course, the price. For Africa, which currently only has sufficient electricity supply for 10 percent of its population, one of the most pressing obstacles for supporting sustainable growth will be developing an electricity network that is available for a greater amount of people. South Africa’s recent and continuous success in soliciting contracts and maintaining a peaceful nuclear program ought to offer hope to other ambitious African governments that are looking to bring their countries into the 21st century.