JOHANNESBURG — South Africa is set to award the largest contract in its history, as a bidding process five years in the making kicks off in early 2012. At stake is the right to build between six and nine nuclear reactors on three to four sites throughout the country.
The winning proposal, which will eventually generate 9.6GW of electricity, could be worth up to $121 billion.
Five companies are expected to compete to build the reactors and new nuclear processing facilities. France’s Areva, China’s Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, South Korea’s Electric Power Corporation, Russia’s Rosatom and a joint US and Japanese bid from Toshiba-Westinghouse are all expected to enter the fray.
Initial bids were prepared in 2007, but delays have moved the official timeline to next year. The competition was so fierce that in 2008 a leaked American diplomatic cable sent from Pretoria mentioned the exasperation that Westinghouse felt with a well-timed, Nicholas Sarkozy-led diplomatic push ahead of Areva’s bid.
Publicly, South Africa has stated its intention to kick its dependency on coal (currently 90 percent of the country’s electricity comes from coal and ground has recently been broken on the huge, coal-fired Medupi Power Station). The new nuclear plants, which should come online between 2024 and 2030, seem like a massive step in that direction.
South African Energy Minster Dipuo Peters has tried to allay fears of a possible repeat of the Fukushima disaster with the new plants. “Clearly there are lessons to be learned from Fukushima,” she said in an editorial in this week’s Mail & Guardian, citing the need for backup power supplies in the event of an emergency.
Still, the dangers of Fukushima are inherent in the proposed design of the new plants. South Africa plans to build pressurized water reactors, ones that are quite different from the boiling water reactors that had partial meltdowns in Japan. While the South African reactors will have more rugged containment vessels less prone to bursting like their Japanese counterparts, both of these designs share a fatal flaw. These plants are dependent on pumping water to keep the nuclear reaction cool and contained. With a loss of that ability, the reaction can quickly spiral out of control.
For much of the last decade South Africa appeared to be producing a cheaper and safer alternative to these two reactor designs. The pebble bed modular reactor uses helium to cool uranium “pebbles,” eventually converting the heat into electricity. Until last year, a South African version located outside of the capital was set to become the world’s first full-scale proof of concept. Under development for more than a decade and at the cost of $1.2 billion, the government finally ditched the project last year after a series of delays and mounting expenses. Without a locally sourced option, the bidding process will go forward with only foreign firms competing.
Areva helped build a power plant at Koeberg on South Africa’s west coast in the 1970s. Three decades on, it remains the only nuclear plant in Africa.
The bids will also need to address uranium enrichment and nuclear storage centers. Today the country’s sole storage facility for enriched uranium is in Pelindaba, outside Pretoria. The nuclear fuel inside its walls once armed bombs for the apartheid regime. Now it mainly feeds the reactors at Koeberg. More reactors will mean more enriched uranium scattered throughout country. This has raised security concerns with some both inside and outside of South Africa. In 2007 Pelindaba was the scene of a coordinated raid that reached the building’s control room. The still unsolved attack was the subject of a 60 Minutes investigation.