Exploring Nuclear Energy in South Africa

Catherine Dawson
March 5, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in South Africa. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Energy and electricity stand as salient and immediate topics in South Africa. Specifically, the country regularly experiences what is known as load shedding, scheduled electricity blackouts, by its primary electricity company Eskom. Beyond the inconvenience that they pose, the shortages have truncated economic growth as well. [1] Eskom operates a diversity of energy services throughout the region, one of which is nuclear energy. The country's singular nuclear energy plant Koeberg sits on the Western coast of the cape and touches the Atlantic Ocean. [2] Much controversy has arisen over this plant as well as talk of new nuclear power plants. Despite their ability to address electricity shortages, these plants are money monsters and have been sites for political subterfuge. Thus, nuclear energy may not provide a feasible energy strategy for the South Africa at present.

Koeberg Station

The Koeberg nuclear plant sits on the Atlantic Ocean as water from the ocean is pumped through its cooling circuit. A photograph of the plant may be seen in Fig. 1. Additionally, the the plant was created specifically to be earthquake-resistant and can withstand up to 7 degrees of magnitude. [3] The plant began construction in 1976 under the apartheid regime. A few years into construction, a US satellite detected strong evidence of nuclear bomb testing near the plant. Although the government denied the existence of any such practice for many years, South African President F.W. de Klerk admitted to the nuclear weapons program and called for its termination in 1990. [4] Not only was the nuclear weapons program held as state secret and openly denied, but also was done in the context of a severely divided nation and within the oppressive white minority National Party government. This history stands as relevant to the nuclear energy plant discussion today. Many civilians, party members, policy makers and the like are skeptical of nuclear plant construction as they are wary of government transparency in cost for construction, impact of the new plants, and imbedded corruption.

Fig. 2: Diagram of a nuclear fission reaction using uranium; a reaction used in the South African Koeberg Station. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Benefits of New Nuclear Plants

Nuclear power plants serve as a clean and voluminous energy source. [5] The energy production does not emit any greenhouse gases. Additionally, the uranium isotope used in nuclear reactors can yield 3.7 million times as much energy as that of an equivalent amount of coal. [5] Nuclear power plants utilize small amounts of uranium as raw material for the fission reaction in nuclear plants. An overview of the nuclear fission reaction using uranium is diagrammed in Fig. 2. Uranium stands as an abundant material, and South Africa, Niger, and Namibia together house around 18% of the world's uranium production overall. [6] Thus, the operation overall fits well in the context of South Africa. And once the plant is built, it is the cheapest energy source.


The main arguments against new nuclear power plant construction are the cost, time for construction, and opportunity for political corruption. Estimates for building 7-8 new nuclear power plants sit around 1 trillion Rand, equivalent to over $62 billion. [1,2] And this number has been creeping. [2] Moreover, nuclear plants take about 7 years to build which is the most of any other energy operation. Coal stations take about 4 years and natural gas-fired plants require around 3 years for completion. As discussed above in regards to the Koeberg station, nuclear energy has historically been a site of political subterfuge and power. In the current discussions, critics cite vagueness of construction plans, including the plant locations and specifications" as reason for skepticism. [2]

Wrapping It All Up

The nuclear energy debate in South Africa is all but unidimensional. Concerns about cost and corruption clash against arguments for effective, clean, and needed energy sources that will sustain the country's future generations. ANC secretary Gwede Mantashe saliently points out that "in comparison to how much is spent on running coal-powered stations, [the] overall cost of nuclear energy makes nuclear a viable option". [7] It is important in the coming discussions that this comparison be stressed, as there is much more discussion on nuclear power plant cost than its coal counterpart. Releasing the potential locations of these plants could also prove advantageous in moving the discussion along, as it would give residents a grounded idea of what the infrastructure and new energy source looks like. Nuclear energy may never be separated from South African politics and the history that precedes it, yet serves as a viable, robust option for energy expansion and economic growth in South Africa.

© Catherine Dawson. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


1] "South Africa Initiates Nuclear Power Procurement Process," Reuters, 28 Dec 15.

[2] H. Winkler, "Why South Africa Should Not Build Eight New Nuclear Power Stations," Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 5 Nov 15.

[3] J. A. Kalley, E. Schoeman, and L.E. Andor, Eds., Southern African Political History: A Chronology of Key Political Events From Independence to Mid-1997 (Greenwood, 1999).

[4] J.W. de Villiers, R. Jardine and M. Reiss, "Why South Africa Gave Up the Bomb," Foreign Affairs 72, No. 5, (November/December 1993).

[5] B. Comby, "The Benefits of Nuclear Energy," Association of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, 21 May 06.

[6] "Uranium," British Geological Survey, March 2010.

[7] G. Whittles, "ANC Slams Claims SA Can't Afford Nuclear Power," Eyewitness News South Africa, 28 Jan 16.