UNDICTATED: SA’s lost nuclear opportunity ready for comeback, can end blackouts

After being only the third nation on earth to identify nuclear power as a viable opportunity, South Africa’s record in this field has been a story of mostly highly destructive choices. But listening to Pretoria-based global nuclear expert Dr Kelvin Kemm, the sorry picture may change. In this episode of UNDICTATED, Kemm offers context into why nuclear went off the rails in SA – and why the country may finally be ready to cash in on its world-class expertise and in some areas, global leadership. He spoke to BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:08 – Introductions
  • 01:32 – Dr Kelvin Kemm on the negativity surrounding Nuclear energy
  • 05:05 – What happened to the Pebble Bed modular reactor
  • 06:51 – Would Pebble bed have played a part in dealing with the ongoing loadshedding in the country
  • 12:14 – Nuclear energy must have a part in SA’s energy future
  • 16:00 – News about upgrading our nuclear plant
  • 19:02 – How he’s company will benefit SA and others
  • 26:32 – Conclusions

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Edited Transcript of the interview between Alec Hogg and Dr Kelvin Kemm

Alec Hogg: In this episode of Undictated, we have a look at South Africa’s power situation and how we can get past, what’s it now? Level six, level seven coming, level eight, who knows? Dr. Kelvin Kemm is the chairman of StratTech Global. It’s his business, his own business based in Pretoria, which focuses on business strategy. And he has degrees in mathematics and nuclear physics, completed his PhD at the age of 26. And Kelvin, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but you and RW Johnson attended the same high school.

Kelvin Kemm: I have a vague recollection now that you mention it that I heard that, but I wouldn’t have brought it to mind immediately, so thanks for reminding me.

Alec Hogg: Northwood High. It wasn’t really one of the most prestigious of schools, but it’s produced the two of you and no doubt others as well who’ve risen to the top in the area. You focused pretty much on nuclear and trying to explain to people like me, who all we can remember was Jacob Zuma wanted to bankrupt the country by talking to Rosatom and getting the Russians involved here.

Kelvin Kemm: That’s correct.

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Alec Hogg: I suppose as a result of that, there’s a very negative connotation in people’s minds on nuclear energy. So it’s been quite a tough path to follow.

Kelvin Kemm: Very, it’s been a very tough path to follow. And in fact, if anything, the one thing that Zuma did correctly was to push for nuclear energy. Possibly one reason was that I became an advisor of his early on he asked me what I thought after he’d started the thing going.

Alec Hogg: And then there was a massive misinterpretation on the part of the public because there was a worldwide anti-nuclear sentiment that was very much stoked by Greenpeace and all those and the local Greens just fell in with the international mood. And what they don’t want is they don’t want centralised power because that gives power to people that control it. There’s very much a socialist communist move on the part of people like Greenpeace and so on to sort of have power in the hands of the people, so to speak, so they glorify your solar panel on your roof. But that’s not going to drive a train across the Karoo. The reality is you need concentrated power like coal or nuclear.

Kelvin Kemm: And wind and solar has its place, but not as a mainstream of the country. And that’s being shown all over the world. But thankfully, over about the last year and a half, say, there’s been a pro-nuclear swing of some magnitude taking place. The Ukrainian affair made Europe realize to what degree they were not independent and their energy didn’t control their energy.

Alec Hogg: South Africa has always had a rule that we can’t import more than 15% of the energy. The moment when we haven’t got enough for ourselves, but it was that we were very aware of how critically important it is to be in control of your own energies, like controlling your own blood flow, so to speak. And so now there’s a substantial move. A lot of the world leaders, particularly the Western world leaders, were just dead scared of public opinion, of course. And when they saw public opinion, favouring climate change and therefore wind and solar had to be forced politically into the population force they were going with the flow. I spoke to certain high-level people, one of whom I’ll even tell you now is Emmanuel Macron. I said to him golly I’m promoting French nuclear more than you are. And he said to me yes, but I’ve got these crazy greens out in the street and if I make one wrong move they throw bricks through car windows. That was a couple of years ago.

Kelvin Kemm: Now he’s announced a small modular program for France and a number of world leaders are going in favor of that because I think they’ve got the courage to do it having seen there being a general mood swinging towards nuclear. So now we see newspaper articles coming out that you would never have seen 18 months ago, even a year ago. So I think there’s going to be a rapid pro-nuclear move. I think there’s going to be quite a drama at COP28 of having seen there being a general mood swinging towards new care. So now we see 18 months ago, even a year ago. So I think there’s going to be a rapid pro-Nuclear move. I think there’s going to be quite a drama at COP 28, and I think nuclear will come out quite strongly out of COP28. So the mood is changing, but South Africa should have gone the nuclear route. There was a lot of anti-nuclear sentiment by the Greens and the media and nothing from the engineers. I went to a few of the organisations, the pro-engineering organisations, and said, what do you think? They said, no, we’re right behind nuclear. I said, will you support it? They said, no, we dare not. So that’s what happened, and the big companies that should have been putting their Brains in gear and doing something about it just didn’t. And so now you’re having to patch up.

Alec Hogg: South Africa has an interesting history in nuclear. We had the Pebble bed modular reactor, which is also something that bears a little more contextualisation. What happened there?

Kelvin Kemm: Right. Well, that became the world’s biggest nuclear project. We were the first in the world to start a commercial small modular reactor design. We got to the point where we actually started building it. The pressure vessel was built. It was brought to South Africa. Sub-assemblies were made. And at the time, I kept saying to the engineering people, I said, go out and tell the public what you’re doing. They said, no, rather just keep our heads down, the minister at the time was on their side and he was reporting to Thabo Mbeki who was on their side and they said no, we just let sleeping dogs lie, which was a big mistake. Then Mbeki got pushed out, Zuma came in and immediately started putting on hold or cancellation a lot of the major projects under his predecessor. Pebble bed was one of them. At the time, believe it or not, the total number of people who got out of bed every morning to work on the pebble bed was 2,000. It was unbelievable. And it was hugely advanced and we were ready to go ahead. But by 2010, the whole thing was effectively cancelled. In fact, it was never cancelled. It was put on hold for a while. And we thought the while would be a couple of months and it has never been unleased. So it went on to ice block, so to speak. And it was great pity.

Alec Hogg: There’s now all sorts of people around the world are climbing in with SMR designs and marketing themselves as if they are really up there by the front and we’re way ahead of essentially everybody.

Alec Hogg: Had pebble bed modular reactors gone ahead in South Africa, because you’re now going back, well, 13 years, would that have, by this stage, been playing a part in offsetting the load shedding?

Kelvin Kemm: Yes, absolutely. In fact, back then we should have built the first big nuclear reactor. In fact, two would have been built by now if we’d not stopped that program. We got to the point where there was an assessment done of the tenders on about a Thursday of the week. They were expecting the result to be announced by the next Monday, Tuesday or something. On the following week, that project was then cancelled. That was the big reactors. So we were within hours of announcing the go ahead of that project when it stopped. In fact there again it was sort of stalled and the stalled was never unstalled but otherwise we would have at least one if not two nuclear power stations bigger than Koeberg running down. I don’t think we ever would have had any load shedding and it would have been the right decision. So even now we need to go ahead with the big reactors but the big reactors need to be on the coast. There’s five sites, new sites been identified. The two prime ones are one down by Jeffrey’s Bay called Tayspont. It’s essentially ready to go. Millions have been spent on assessing the site and doing the EIA. The other one is Dana Fontaine, which is next door to Koeberg. That’s been approved to go ahead. That was the number two site. And then there’s three others. Another one in the Western Cape down by Cape Agulhas, and then two up on the Northern Cape Coast. And they’ve all purchased years ago and work was started on all of them. So we got to that point. In the meantime, we’ve spent as much money on wind and solar as we would have spent on the first nuclear complex. And the wind and solar is giving us nothing in comparison to the three and a half thousand megawatts we would have got from one nuclear power station. So that was a mistake. Zuma saw the light afterwards and came out.

He never signed any deal with the Russians that I can find out about. I spoke to him, I spoke to people in Moscow spoke to most senior government people, nobody knows anything about it. What in fact happened is the minister at the time signed five technology cooperation agreements with five countries, the USA, Korea, China, Russia, and which one, well, France. And those were to make sure that if we did nuclear within the foundations, we understood that we worked in metric measure and we did this, we did that, it was an early handshake. The Russians signed that in Russia. And within a couple of hours, a private message came to me, look, this has just come out. Some Russian translator, a young lady whom I actually got to meet later, she translated into English and didn’t do that good a job. And she also with her Russian mentality at the time, when they said something like this could lead to further developments in South Africa and Russia, she said this will lead to building reactors. So it came out like that and the extreme green lobby then decided to interpret that as a contract had been signed clandestinely and it wasn’t. In fact that wouldn’t happen either. There’s no way as a president to sign a nuclear contract like that. In South Africa you’ve got levels the engineers must approve, the fuel systems must be approved, the nuclear regulatory authorities must approve, there must be site approval.

There’s a whole lot of approvals that spiral around one another to come to a conclusion that’s acceptable to the nuclear fraternity of the country. You can’t just be told that technology will be accepted. And so it was never viable, but nobody was fighting back other than at a political level. They didn’t involve the scientists and engineers. So it’s been a pity, there was quite a mess. There was never a court decision stopping nuclear. There was a court decision saying that the public participation process had been inadequately carried out. That’s what the court said. The Greens had announced to the press the court has stopped the nuclear program. It hadn’t. And so now we’re in a position where Minister Gwede Mantashe has now announced 2500 megawatts of nuclear and he said the RFP should be coming out January, February next year. And of that 2500, 2400 is for the big reactor that will quite likely go near Jeffrey’s Bay possibly Cape Town and then there’s a hundred megawatts allocated for small modular reactor development. He has to put development there and not purchase because there isn’t one running at the moment so you can’t look and buy that one or that one like and buy a car. And so that’s what the 2500 represents.

Alec Hogg: Sure, it’s quite a complicated story. But I guess you can’t blame the public for saying that the whole nuclear program of Zuma was a way to plunder, plunder the state. We’ve seen what state captures done. We see what happened at Medupi and Kusile where there was a lot of money that was stolen from taxpayers. And so I guess…

Kelvin Kemm: Absolutely.

Alec Hogg: Given that and the Russian involvement as well with Rosatom, there were a lot of warning flags. What’s different today? Why should we now be listening to what you say and saying, come on, nuclear must have a part in South Africa’s energy future?

Kelvin Kemm: If you look at Medupi and Kusile, the principle and everything was dead accurate. In fact, we should probably be building another big coal station like that. However, what went wrong there is all sorts of plundering, as you say, and that projects and contracts were wangled into various people’s hands, not because they were considered technologically the best people, but they were the people that were greasing palms and so on and so forth. And that’s not the way you build a complex thing.

Also, they did not trust South African engineers. There were all sorts of foreign engineers that came in with specifications from other countries. Our people had found out that certain paperwork and that in South Africa had to be done this way because it worked with our type of coal and our type of temperatures and so on, but they didn’t. They brought in the foreign-type paperwork and put that in only to find that it failed quite soon afterwards. And South African engineers were saying, but we knew that 20 years ago, but you wouldn’t come and ask us.

So there should have been like a military system, there should have been one single project manager like the overall general in command. And they say, you build this thing and everybody else started away. And he must then ensure that all the hundreds and hundreds of private enterprise companies that all together come to build this thing, just like a huge military machine going into battle, the artillery and the parachutes and the infantry and all that all are coordinated through a line of command.

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And there wasn’t, I’ve heard numbers of stories of this happening and that happening and nobody knows who’s doing what and where and crossing each other’s paths. That’s where all the money went down the drain. It was the bad project management. It wasn’t that the principle of building a big station like it was wrong, we’d done it before. South Africa built the largest dry-cooled, air-cooled coal-fired gas stations in the world. That was when the ESKOM engineers were dealing with engineers in the private world. Because of course there’s always private enterprises effectively has run ESKOM and run the coal stations. People sort of talk now about the privatisation of ESKOM. That’s very false because ESKOM never went out and poured concrete, they contracted people to pour concrete. The ESKOM engineers always were the project overseers at the top, but they had the engineers doing it. They didn’t give it to all sorts of catered deployment buddies.

Kelvin Kemm: And so that’s what happened. So there were very fine engineers in Eskom always that were doing a good engineering job and making sure that a whole lot of private companies collectively built the power stations. And that didn’t happen for Kusile-Medupi and you see what the result was. So for new nuclear, it was make sure we handle it in the correct project management way and not find that everybody’s got a finger in the past somewhere, because that’s when you’ll get a mess. But if they leave it to South Africa, we world leaders in nuclear in many respects and we know what we’re doing. South Africa is the third oldest nuclear country in the world, believe it or not. We predate France, Japan, and so on. And so we’ve been in the game a very long time. And so we know what we’re doing as long as they give us the go ahead and step out of the way.

Alec Hogg: So don’t do another firing Alstom and bringing in Hitachi because it gives the ANC 25% of the project kind of thing when we go forward on nuclear. Yeah. How good are we then if we’ve been, that’s an interesting fact that you’ve given us that South Africa is the third oldest nuclear country in the world. How good are we at this? And particularly what’s been going on at Koeberg because we have.

Kelvin Kemm: That type of thing, yes.

Alec Hogg: Again, there’s mixed messages coming through on the upgrading of our nuclear plant there.

Kelvin Kemm: Well, the American Atomic Energy Commission was formed in 1946. Next, South Africa’s nuclear authority was formed in 1948. The British were in between. So that’s when we started. Way back, Jan Smuts realised that nuclear was going to be a future. And believe it or not, if you look in about 1950 in the legislation, South Africa had decided to go ahead with nuclear development and design nuclear reactors.

Kelvin Kemm: Government intention in the 50s. And so we’ve been there a long time. Koeberg is the most southerly nuclear power station in the world, currently the only operating one in Africa, although Egypt is currently building one, so Egypt will be the next. Koeberg is the only nuclear power station in the world completely certified under both American legislation and European legislation. Previous Koeberg managers made sure that was done. So we respected all over the world for the nature of the operation. They right now are going through a midterm upgrade and what has just happened now with unit one is that three steam generators have been replaced and that’s a fantastic job. Each of these steam generators is the size of two municipal buses standing end on end and each one weighs more than a Boeing 747 and these three had to be brought into the country, moved from Cape Town taken through a thing and place hole in the wall, so to speak, horizontally, brought vertical, lined up and all the wells and connections of which there are many, had to be done utterly perfectly. Everything checked and then ticked off against the National Nuclear Regulator over and over and over again. And there was huge complexity, both technical and legal complexity for all the compliance. And I think they’ve done a wonderful job. They’re about to switch off unit number two, which the power station manager will do when he sees fit, possibly in the next couple of weeks. And then it will go through the same exercise, but it should be much faster now because they did the first one and they know they’ve had all the experience to do it. It’s only a couple of times in the world that this has ever been done. So this is a major achievement. And soon as the new generators are in, Koeberg will be able to produce up to 10% more power than now. The new steam generators will enable you to extract more energy out of the nuclear reactor. So we could get as much as 200 megawatts extra out of Koeberg. And it’s good to run for another 40 years. So it’s in good shape. And of course, I must add that Koeberg is currently South Africa’s cheapest electricity bar for at about 40 cents a kilowatt hour.

Alec Hogg: Thank you for that context. From your perspective, you are also doing something very interesting within your company, which is privately owned. Just explain that to us and again, how that could benefit this country and maybe elsewhere.

Alec Hogg: Thank you for that context. From your perspective, you are also doing something very interesting within your company, which is privately owned. Just explain that to us and again, how that could benefit this country and maybe elsewhere.

Kelvin Kemm: Well, what happened is after the pebble bed reactor was essentially closed down, it’s been sitting there with a small core of people that were sitting in Eskom, just for legal reasons, that recently were moved over to Nexa. And so it was never actually stopped, as I said, they had this little thing, little group that kept sitting there. And so it’s always been there. However, of course, the engineers and that started to dissipate and go into other jobs. But a group of them were really committed.

They got together, formed a private grouping, initially with 48 people putting in private contributions, and they started designing a variant of the pebble bed reactor, one that could be built cheaper and faster. There were two major differences. One, they reduced the outlet temperature from 940 to 750, which is still massive, bearing in mind that Koeberg is 250 to 300. And they also then took helium cooling through the core and through a heat exchanger. The heat exchangers like the ones they’ve just replaced at Koeberg, you buy them off the shelf. So what it meant was you only have to design the actual reactor, all the other stuff in the power station is off the shelf purchase. So we know the price at any moment and it can just be done by ordering one of the international companies to build the turbines, this, this and this. So we went and they did that and they went ahead and over 10 years now been working on it and have designed a reactor called the HTMR High Temperature Modular Reactor 100. It produces 100 megawatts of thermal energy which gives you 35 megawatts of electricity. It’s about 5 or 10 percent the size of a big nuclear power station, but typically you’d put two reactors or four reactors on the site. So you typically have say 70 megawatts or something if you have a pair.

Now the great advantage of this is that it’s a very small reactor, the HMR 100. That’s what we are promoting at the moment, what we want to build in Pretoria, and we’re looking for international funding and looking for local support. We’re getting significant interest from around the world. I’m getting a phone call or some communication every two weeks for the last 18 months. Just a fortnight ago, a big deal funder from Europe arrived here in Samson to come and see us.

This is the third foreign visit we’ve had where people have physically come to sit with us to say, you guys look as if you really know what you’re doing. That is developing very rapidly now. Interestingly, the fellow had never been to Africa. He arrives here and we have a meeting in Sandton and he says, wow, your roads work. You’ve got a fantastic airfield. Man, that’s the streetlights work. The traffic flows beautifully. The hotel is wonderful. The water all, you know, the hair, you know. Not just him, I’ve found numbers of these European people phone up and they think we’ve got a dirt airstrip for the Papakab landing. They don’t know we’ve got first-world sophistication. So then you tell them we want to build a nuclear reactor. And they imagine you living in your mud hut trying to convince them that you can build a nuclear reactor. The moment they come here and have a look, it’s how they say, good grief, these guys are in a different ballgame. And South Africa, like through Department of Tourism, that is not promoting to the world the sophistication of the country, we see a little vehicles riding around at the Kruger Park, looking at the lions and so on, but you don’t see the airport and the freeways and this type of thing. That’s a major problem.

So anyway, that’s all going well. Meantime, the 48 that put money in, because there was this anti-nuclear sentiment, they one by one fell out. And now we’ve consolidated it, and it’s now what’s within my company, together with some other players, and we’ve now got the nucleus of some hundred plus people and we want to build this and it’s designed and that we’re ready to start. If somebody gives us money tomorrow, we can go. We also find the international funders are calling. We’re looking for about $500 million to build a reactor plant that produces electricity. We found they phone up and they talk to me and they say, how much money do you want? We’ve got a very accurate figure that I give them, but for you, it’s just $500 million approximately. Then they gasp on the other side and they say, is that all? I was expecting five times more because the other countries are quoting five times more than us. But I went to look up, you know, this Big Mac index of what a Big Mac burger costs in various countries. I looked it up a few days ago when I got an inquiry. In the United States, it’s about five dollars 50. In Switzerland, seven dollars 20. Around much of Europe, six dollars something. In South Africa, $1.65. That’s what the big mechanics is. So it shows you why they come up with figures like five. So they can’t believe that we can achieve what we say we can achieve at what appears to them to be very small money. Interestingly, the one fellow recently said to me, your country is considered very stable, believe it or not, in that we trust the private enterprise here to do what they say. One of my colleagues in my group here went to the Middle East a couple of weeks ago and had a dinner with the Crown Prince of one of those countries there.

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And during the dinner, the Crown Prince said to him, I find South Africans to be some of the finest people in the world. He said, your engineers always do what they say and they finish the job and they do a good job. So he said, well, thank you very much. We think that too, but it’s nice to hear it from you. And it’s interesting to see the opinions that are there, that they are interested in dealing with us. And we’re dealing with two royal families at the moment. And we have to just pull certain politics together, much of which is not under our control. But overall, we’re in a position to build the reactor, say, in Pretoria, because this is where we are, and there’s a nuclear certified site, and all the experts are here. Then the export potential for Africa and elsewhere is phenomenal. I emphasise the reactor does not need water. It’s gas-cooled, so you can put a cross on a map and just put it there. You don’t have to go where the water is. And so we’ve had inquiries from numbers of African countries. There’s 10 or 12 African countries so far that have announced to the International Atomic Energy Agency that they want to follow a nuclear future. You’ll find it in the media. It’s easy to look it up. and they’re realising that they can’t build coal, they can’t do gas, they can’t, because of the size of the country as well.

They can’t just do something here and then put power lines because for them power lines are 500 kilometres long, not like in Germany where they’re five kilometres long. And so the practicalities, I’ve sat with some of these leaders of other African countries and they just say, when they look at it, there’s no answer other than something like nuclear power that doesn’t need water and the small enough to handle economically they can afford it and from a point of view of the date of their operations. So that’s going to be the answer. So the export potential for us is phenomenal. And then you go to South African businessmen and you get sort of blank stares or what you get is we absolutely support you, we’re right behind you but we then tell anybody outside we’re not going to be seen to be supportive and that’s shocking.

Alec Hogg: Dr. Kelvin Kemm, fascinating insights on a potential future for South Africa. And I’m Alec Hogg from BizNews.com.

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