JOHANNESBURG — South Africa is Africa’s only nuclear power, and the first nation to have voluntarily relinquished its nuclear weapons. The government then committed to being fully transparent about its nuclear activities, which include research and power generation. As other African nations now seek to develop nuclear power, South Africa can provide guidance.
South Africa is Africa’s economic powerhouse and home to its only working source of nuclear energy. The government estimates three million South Africans live without power, but the majority of the population has electricity and the government plans to develop more through nuclear energy.
South African energy experts say they can lead the way for the continent.
“South Africa has the requisite expertise to embark on further nuclear programs,” said Diboke Ben Martins, South Africa’s Minister of Energy.
“South Africa is involved in nuclear research, nuclear power generation for the last 27 to 30 years. So it is nothing new to us. And currently five percent of our electricity is generated by means of two generators at the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, and we also have some nuclear facilities which are used extensively for medical research purposes and also isotopes for medical purposes,” said Wolsey Barnard, who works for the Department of Energy.
Physicist Kelvin Kemm said South Africa also has the unique experience of stepping back from the nuclear weapons brink. During the apartheid era, the nation developed six complete atomic weapons.
“We became the first ever to declare that we had nuclear weapons and to stop them. To build an effective nuclear weapon, you actually need an enrichment level of about 90 percent or more. For a nuclear reactor you do not need to go anywhere near 20 percent... A few years ago, we took the decision to downgrade it to 19 and a half percent, very visibly, to bring it under the safe level of 20. So the importance is, are you being safe and open with everybody in the business? Then it should be quite safe,” said Kemm.
South African companies say they have the expertise and desire to develop nuclear technology.
Construction industry executive Jabulile Tlhako said nuclear energy is the only likely solution to South Africa’s energy challenges. The company she represents, Murray & Roberts, also builds power plants.
“Nuclear energy is safe, it is reliable and it is affordable. It is a form of energy that is affordable and its safe and we have to go through that route because now the energy industry is threatened,” said Tlhako.
As African cities grow and the continent’s energy needs rise, South Africa saod its nuclear knowledge may be the key to bringing the continent fully into the modern world.