South African farmers embrace nuclear solution amid blackout crisis – Francois Rossouw (SAAI)

The saying ’’n Boer Maak ‘n Plan’ is well-known in South Africa symbolising our inherent ability to improvise to solve problems. Currently, one of the most pressing issues confronting our farming community is the scourge of blackouts, which has had devastating consequences. The onset of record-breaking blackouts earlier this year resulted in the culling of millions of chicks, underscoring the urgent need for a sustainable solution. In response, the Southern African Agri Initiative (SAAI) has embarked on an initiative, partnering with C5 Capital, a venture capital firm based in Washington, to spearhead advanced nuclear energy solutions for agriculture in South Africa. SAAI CEO, Francois Rossouw told Biznews that recent surveys indicate that 56% farmers suffered income losses due to blackouts, with 75% forced to adapt their farming practices to mitigate the impact. Some farmers have been compelled to abandon their livelihoods altogether, as the profitability of farming has been severely compromised. While solar energy has been embraced by farmers, he said nuclear energy is more sustainable and reliable with no downtime. Rossouw said the scalability of nuclear power is also very attractive. C5 Capital is raising R9 billion to build the first small modular reactor (SMR). This strategic partnership with the agricultural sector builds upon C5 Capital’s existing plans to deploy SMRs for energy consumption by leading data centres in the Western Cape. South Africa has a rich history of nuclear innovation, with the pebble bed modular reactor development project being abruptly halted during the tenure of former President Jacob Zuma. The first unit is expected to be completed by 2029.  

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Highlights from the interview

56% of farmers have lost income, 75% adapting farming practices to due power blackouts

00:53

In South Africa, we have about 800,000 people employed in the agricultural sector, contributing approximately 2.5% of GDP. In South Africa, we hold this firm belief, or SAI holds this firm belief, that agriculture is built on two crucial pillars: profitability and sustainability. Our farmers rank among the best in the world because we can provide a preferred product at a competitive price to markets worldwide, including Asia, Europe, and the Americas. However, we are unable to farm profitably and sustainably if we cannot deliver a product at a great or competitive price, which inhibits our ability to compete with other farmers globally. Electricity plays a significant role in this; whether for irrigation or poultry farming, electricity is essential. When electricity is unreliable or unpredictable, it has a substantial impact. Recent surveys have shown that approximately 56% of farmers experienced income loss due to blackouts in South Africa, with 75% adapting their farming practices severely to compensate. Moreover, many farmers have been forced to give up farming altogether due to unprofitability. As an organisation dedicated to the rights and interests of family farmers, we had to seek long-term and sustainable solutions, especially with the world shifting towards net-zero outcomes and increasing discussions around carbon sequestration and credits. Therefore, nuclear energy emerged as a viable option when we were approached by C5 Capital to collaborate on this project.

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While solar has been embraced, nuclear energy offers sustainability 

03:16

We are one of the countries that extensively utilise solar energy because the private sector has wholeheartedly embraced it, along with wind energy. However, I believe we need to expand our technological horizons. Nuclear energy, in particular, stands out as more sustainable with its consistent operations. Unlike solar or wind, nuclear power plants can operate continuously for years without relying on weather conditions. Additionally, nuclear energy offers excellent scalability and cost-effectiveness, as confirmed by engineers. They wouldn’t have designed it otherwise.

We were approached by C5 Capital while already engaged in discussions for over a year on various projects, particularly regarding this partnership. I believe this collaboration between advanced nuclear technology and organised agriculture, represented by SAI, is the first of its kind in Africa. This project not only aims to provide clean and sustainable energy directly to consumers but also includes establishing an energy innovation accelerator. While many perceive nuclear energy solely as a means to provide clean and sustainable energy for farmers, there are other groundbreaking applications that combine nuclear science and agriculture. For instance, scientists are utilising techniques like SIT (sterile insect technology), stable isotopes, and near-infrared spectroscopy to address challenges in pest control, animal health, combating antimicrobial resistance, assisting with gene selection, and promoting sustainable animal production, among others. Hence, it transcends beyond mere energy provision. However, for C5, the mandate was crystal clear: To find a way to deliver clean and sustainable energy to end-users. 

Farming presents an excellent opportunity as it doesn’t always require existing infrastructure, particularly when considering scaling to the rest of Africa. By establishing plants like this where infrastructure is lacking, we can truly unlock Africa’s agricultural potential. Nuclear technology allows us to leapfrog traditional approaches, a strategy vital for initiatives like feeding an additional 2 billion people by 2030. These discussions led to the cooperation between our organisations.

Modular, movable nuclear units the size of a football field

06:08

It’s modular pebble bed nuclear technology. Being modular, it’s movable and not as massive as conventional nuclear plants. Typically, when we think of nuclear power, images of Three Mile Island, Fukushima, or Chernobyl come to mind, as the risks are always significant. However, this technology has made significant advancements, leveraging the laws of physics to ensure extreme safety. Unlike traditional nuclear plants, this technology has minimised risks to such an extent that accidents like those aforementioned are unlikely to occur again.

Physically, it’s compact, resembling nothing larger than a football field situated on a farm. The infrastructure typically consists of a single three-story building, with minimal additional structures. When attempting to convey this to 3D designers for mock-ups, we found it challenging, with AI providing the closest representation.

One of its most critical features is its cooling mechanism, which doesn’t rely on water. Instead, it utilises fans and helium gas, enhancing safety and efficiency. As for power supply, it’s adaptable depending on operational needs, particularly during peak times.

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First mini nuclear could be on a farm in five years with cost of R9 billion

07:47

Currently, we’re in the funding phase, with C5 Capital leading the fundraising efforts. Once the funding is secured, we’re looking at a time frame of approximately five years. The first unit could be operational on a farm within five years. The technology is already developed, and there are experts actively involved in its advancement. Additionally, as it’s a proudly South African technology, we benefit from having a supportive pro-nuclear government and a robust nuclear regulatory framework. Hence, we don’t foresee any major obstacles. With the necessary funding in place, a five-year timeline seems feasible.

There have been various figures discussed, but according to conversations with engineers, the estimated cost is around R9 billion. Because this technology is modular, additional units can be added incrementally. This initial investment serves as the foundation for further expansion.

Initially, the cost for the first pilot project may seem substantial. However, it represents a significant long-term investment. Initially, it might attract involvement from companies or possibly a consortium of farmers or a community interested in ensuring sustainable energy production over an extended period. This approach could alleviate many challenges, particularly in a country like ours with excellent farming capabilities and abundant export opportunities. Economies of scale will play a crucial role in cost reduction. Once the first unit is established, subsequent installations will become more economical as production facilities are set up. This trend is expected to continue, resulting in further cost reductions over time.

Nuclear pebble bed technology was pioneer in South Africa 30 years ago

10:03

I think it’s something that I’m most proud of—having fellow South Africans involved. They are the ones who pioneered this technology 30 years ago, and most of them have since spread throughout the world, particularly to America, Australia, France, and other countries, to assist with various projects. Now, they are looking to come home to build this first-of-its-kind reactor here in South Africa.

Farmers are looking for solutions to produce more for less 

10:37

During these blackouts, production is severely hampered. Last year alone, our poultry industry bore the brunt, with approximately 10 million chickens culled due to the inability to maintain proper heating, cooling, and feeding conditions. Such incidents result in significant financial losses. Power cuts disrupt the cold chain for perishable goods, causing them to lose freshness and leading to rejection by retailers. This, in turn, causes delivery delays, financial losses for farmers and exporters, and tarnishes reputations in export markets. Consequently, inflated food prices are passed on to consumers. Many farmers have turned to solar energy as an alternative.

However, every time nuclear energy is mentioned, the sentiment is that it cannot be implemented soon enough. Therefore, I believe we have a responsibility to educate consumers about the associated risks. While efforts have been made in the industry to mitigate these risks, I don’t believe it’s something we need to worry excessively about. Nonetheless, with any pioneering endeavour, there will inevitably be some hesitation.

As farmers, we must adopt more technology to meet the challenge of producing more with less. Embracing technology is essential for reducing costs and minimising our environmental impact. This approach is crucial for building sustainable and profitable farming operations, as it enables us to lower expenses while increasing yields. I must commend farmers for their optimism and willingness to embrace new technologies, especially when they see how they improves profitability.

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