SA looking at uranium enrichment

29 August 2006

South Africa is considering building between four and six new nuclear reactors and a uranium enrichment programme to fuel them, says Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica.

Speaking at the launch of the South African Young Nuclear Professionals Society last week, Sonjica said that South Africa would conduct a cost benefit analysis of the viability of uranium beneficiation.

South Africa currently has just one nuclear power station, Koeberg in the Western Cape, which accounts for 6% of the country’s power needs. The rest of South Africa’s power is coal-generated.

The enriched uranium used at Koeberg is currently imported from France, although South Africa is a leading uranium producer. This made it logical to consider the economic and other implications of a nuclear enrichment programme, Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin told reporters in Pretoria on Monday.

“The economics of this are very complex,” Erwin said. “The international agreements are complex. But what Minister Sonjica was indicating was that we will do the study, the outcome of which is likely to take some time.”

Erwin said that all links in the uranium value chain were being considered. “South Africa has a capacity in this industry, and we are now studying how we should configure the industry in light of the changing environment.”

International obligations
South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme was voluntarily dismantled in the early 1990s, earning the country widespread international recognition. South Africa remains the only country ever to have dismantled a nuclear programme.

Erwin stressed that any new uranium enrichment activities would remain within the country’s obligations to the international community.

“South Africa has said unequivocally that we have withdrawn our capacity for weapons-grade enrichment,” the minister said. “Whether we should now go back to enrichment for civilian uses is a matter we are going to have to study very carefully.”

More power
Sonjica’s “nuclear build programme” would add an additional 5 000 MW to South Africa’s power generating capacity. State power company Eskom has confirmed that, in addition to the pebble bed modular reactor, it is investigating the feasibility of a pressure water reactor.

A demonstration pebble bed modular reactor, under construction near Cape Town, is expected to be online by 2010.

According to Sonjica, South Africa’s nuclear energy industry currently employs 3 500 people.

“Clearly there is potential in this country and this continent for us to look at ways of increasing the role nuclear technology plays in our economies,” she said. reporter

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