The country of South Africa faces serious problems, many arising out of decades of apartheid and the extreme disparities of wealth it engendered. The first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, was able to begin the transition process to racial political equality while avoiding the sort of wrenching and destructive upheaval that occurred in neighboring Zimbabwe. But frustration at persistent poverty and unemployment makes South Africa’s domestic tranquility a fragile situation.
The nation’s policymakers understand that ample and reasonably-priced energy supplies will enable them to create and operate profitable enterprises that can put many South Africans to work and enhance the country’s prosperity. Their plan to build ten new nuclear reactors resulted in an invitation to have the president of SCGI, Tom Blees, visit South Africa last November for a series of events aimed at educating the public about nuclear power. During that trip, Tom realized that the nation’s policymakers were being advised almost exclusively by reactor vendors, all of whom want to get the contracts to build the country’s power plants. Before returning from that November trip, Tom suggested that perhaps he could come back to South Africa to offer advice as an independent observer free of corporate nuclear influence.
That suggestion was quickly acted upon, and as a result a second trip was planned for the last two weeks of May. This time Tom made presentations at a 3-day utility conference in Cape town as well as visiting one of the towns where a nuclear plant is slated to be built. The mayor and city council members of the town had many questions, and spent a lot of time outside the workshop engaged in conversation with Tom to address their concerns. By the end of the day they were quite enthusiastic about the prospect of hosting the power plant. There were also a number of radio, print, and TV interviews during the trip, including a CNBC interview that was aired across the entire continent.
One point that Tom made repeatedly during this tour was that whichever reactor vendor South Africa chooses, they should insist upon a dual-use reactor system that not only produces electricity but also desalinates water. Like California—the birthplace of SCGI—South Africa has large areas that are semi-arid and thus unused and nearly unusable for agriculture. As has been shown in California, providing freshwater to these areas could create an agriculture industry worth tens of billions of dollars per year and provide thousands of jobs that would be perfect for unskilled laborers to enter the work force.
Since the cost of nuclear fuel is trivial (or virtually free, if fast reactors are built) and they can run perfectly at full power 24/7, the power plants could be set up so that every bit of excess heat is used to desalinate water. Russia demonstrated a combination fast reactor/desalination plant in 1973 in what is now Kazakhstan, and of course desalination technology has improved considerably since then. The impact of such dual-purpose reactors on South African industry and society would be immensely beneficial.
One special event that characterized the potential for these power projects to impact all segments of South African society was an invitation for Tom to screen the movie Pandora’s Promise and then discuss nuclear power with 100 of the top math and science students in the township of Soweto. The kids were extremely engaged and excited about the possibility of careers in the country’s nascent nuclear power industry.
As a result of our involvement, SCGI has grown to be a trusted advisor with the best interests of South Africa at heart. Hopefully we can continue to be involved as these plans move forward to assure that sound decisions are made that will benefit the country on many levels.