Nuclear imminent: Kelvin Kemm says wind/solar not viable alternatives

Nuclear, the answer to all South Africa’s power problems, or so the population has been told. The problem, well the Democratic Alliance questions the financing, and there’s a veil of secrecy around the whole deal. There are also calls to pull the plug on the project completely. Former Rand Daily Mail journalist Bev Mortimer chats to nuclear physicist Kelvin Kemm, he says nuclear is not an ‘if’ question anymore, but rather ‘when’ – “wind and solar aren’t viable alternatives and construction will start next year”. – Stuart Lowman

By Bev Mortimer*

Bev Mortimer

The construction of a nuclear power plant is definitely going to happen and soon. “It is not a case of if, but when,” says Dr Kelvin Kemm, a nuclear physicist who heads up Nuclear Africa, a private project management company.

Dr Kemm is a nuclear physicist, who has recently been appointed to the special South African Ministerial Advisory Council on Energy (MACE). He also sits on two prominent nuclear boards in the US.

Dr Kemm made these remarks during his visit to the 3 800 hectare Thyspunt site earlier this month. Thyspunt is one of three proposed nuclear sites.

Dr Kemm believes construction could start as early as 2016. And he told St Francis Chronicle that the nuclear procurement process is imminent. This process involves the bidding for nuclear components.

Dr Kemm points out that the long awaited EIA draft for the proposed Thyspunt nuclear site is currently with the Department of Environmental Affairs. This report is scheduled to be released very soon. Then there will be a public participation process with public meetings, expected to start in September. Following this the Department needs to take a Record of Decision and then the process moves to the Minister of Energy for a decision. Approval for one of the three sites to be used for the construction of another nuclear power plant in South Africa could be given as early as April 2016.

Provided there is no hold up, construction of the first of three nuclear power stations could start next year, Dr Kemm advises.

Under South Africa’s current Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for electricity, the intention is to introduce 9 600 MW of new nuclear capacity, or some six to eight reactors, between 2023 and 2030. The Department of Energy has said that it will “follow the approved procurement process, which will include a competitive-bidding process that is transparent and cost effective and in line with legislation”.

While most local businesses believe Thyspunt will be good for St Francis Bay and the whole Kouga region in a flagging economy, not everyone in the idyllic town is pro-nuclear.

One of the main local antagonists is the Thyspunt Alliance which maintains it is not anti-nuclear but is opposed to a nuclear  power plant being constructed at Thyspunt, only 10 kms away from St Francis Bay. Trudi Malan who heads up the Alliance was reported last week to have told an online business news website that the site was not suitable for various reasons, including fears that it could negatively affect the local chokka industry. On the Thyspunt Alliance blogspot it states that a War Chest has been established to raise funds for a possible legal challenge.

Nuclear physicist Kelvin Kemm
Nuclear physicist Kelvin Kemm at the proposed Thyspunt nuclear site

Interviewed last week by John Robbie on 702, Dr Kemm said that nuclear power provides consistent electricity, whereas solar and wind technologies are variable.

They have their benefits but they cannot supply baseline electricity. One needs to have a baseline technology that will consistently supply electricity, he said, adding that a wind farm went four times to zero in a month recently. One cannot have electricity kicking out in the middle of  a heart surgery, Dr Kemm stressed. Asked if nuclear was the way to go, he replied “Absolutely! There is no option!”

Dr Kemm also told St Francis Chronicle that South Africa should have started already with nuclear, but there has been stalling. “The whole new nuclear power build programme has reached the point where we need to start moving to the implementation of the build, with specific dates in mind.”

Dr Kemm quoted the environmental manager of Eskom, Deidre Herbst, who spoke recently at the Nuclear Africa 2015 conference on how much work had been done to categorise the proposed sites for the new nuclear construction. Herbst revealed potential sites have been drilled to gather information on the geology below ground, meteorological measurements have been taken for years  (so weather patterns over the areas are really well known) and the fauna and flora have been studied in minute detail, plus ocean areas were examined.

Dr Kemm said the conference clearly showed the vast potential of nuclear power for Africa and also indicated that South Africa is ready to start building right now. “We need to get going!

“The first site is ready for use. A few legal procedures are left and then we are ready to roll,” Dr Kemm said.

In an aside and talking on the benefits of nuclear, Dr Kemm revealed that South Africa is the second highest exporter of nuclear medicine in the world and one of the world leaders in medical radioisotope production. The country exports more than R1 billion worth of nuclear medicine annually from South Africa.

“Nuclear components have many uses…there are even silicon chips in cell phones which were processed in the Safari nuclear reactor near Pretoria,” he added.

* Bev Mortimer, formerly with top national newspapers like the Rand Daily Mail and global news agency Agence France Presse, relocated to St Francis where she runs the local newspaper, the St Francis Chronicle