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Rethinking the nuclear option

Koeberg already provides 6.5 percent of South Africa's electricity.
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South Africa
Environmental Issues
Nuclear power

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNN) -- Koeberg Power Station, 27 kilometers north of Cape Town on South Africa's Atlantic coast, is the only nuclear plant on the African continent.

Since its two reactors were switched on in 1984, Koeberg has provided power for one of South Africa's fastest growing regions and now accounts for 6.5 percent of the country's electricity needs.

But it is a new, smaller facility, being built alongside the existing power station, that could put South Africa solidly on the nuclear energy map.

It's here that South Africa's first Pebble Bed Modular Reactor will be built.

Its developers hope that by 2010 the plant will be operational and providing enough electricity for Cape Town's four million residents and beyond.

The gas-cooled reactor uses more than half a million pebble shaped particles of enriched uranium which operate at high temperatures, increasing the amount of energy the reactor can convert into electricity.

The reactor is also small enough to be housed in a three-storey building and can't get hot enough to cause a meltdown.

Unlike conventional nuclear reactors, the "pocket nuke" doesn't need water as a coolant, which means it can be built away from rivers and the coast.

But, as well as convincing the public that nuclear energy is safe, PBMR, the company developing the reactor, also has to convince South African electricity giant Eskom, one of the biggest utilities companies in the world, that it offers a cost effective method of producing electricity.

"One of the things the pebble bed has to demonstrate once we've got it constructed would be that it can compete with any new coal station that we might bring onto the national grid," said Eskom spokesperson Carin de Villiers.

"If it cannot compete with that than we would have to look at other options. One of the things in all the tests they have done up until now from an economic point of view shows that it can actually compete with our coal stations bearing in mind that our coal stations are amongst the cheapest in the world to run.

"They have to be able to demonstrate that at the end of the day, and only then would we be interested in taking it."

Nuclear power fell out of political favor following the meltdown of the Soviet nuclear plant at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. At least 30 people died in that explosion while millions more were affected by fallout from the accident with a dramatic rise in local cases of thyroid cancer, leukemia and birth defects.

But PBMR believes the time is right to re-think the nuclear option, stressing financial benefits that will benefit both the country and individual utility companies.

"If we only export 10 reactors per year we can add 57,000 jobs directly and indirectly from skilled to unskilled to the South African economy and add up to 8 billion Rand to the GDP and 10 billion Rand to export income," says PBMR's Geraldine Bennett.

"Now that's only 10 and we are already looking at a potential order that's about to be signed for 24 reactors."

Financial arguments alone, however, are not enough to convince environmental lobby groups.

"If nuclear power is to produce a contribution to meeting our energy needs it needs to pass a number of tests," says Roger Higham of Friends of the Earth.

"It needs to be cost effective, it needs not to produce waste for tens of thousands of years and it needs to insure against nuclear proliferation, the misuse of nuclear facilities to make bombs or terrorist weapons."

Nuclear energy will undoubtedly encounter opposition, but dwindling supplies of fossil fuels are forcing people to look for alternative energy sources.

South Africa already supplies two thirds of Africa's electricity. From 2010 onwards it could be making an impact far beyond its own continent.

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