South Africa nuclear regulator says expects plant site license in June

FILE PHOTO: Electricity pylons carry power from Cape Town's Koeberg nuclear power plant August 13, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo

ABU DHABI (Reuters) - South Africa’s nuclear regulator said on Tuesday that an installation site license would likely be granted in June for a nuclear power plant that the finance minister has said Africa’s most advanced economy cannot afford.

South Africa’s nuclear plans are shrouded in controversy and uncertainty, with local activists and the media raising concerns about transparency and costs as well as safety and environmental risks at a time when Pretoria is trying to reduce the economy’s heavy reliance on coal power.

“We have progressed in earnest the work of licensing the site and we will be issuing hopefully the siting license by June 2018,” Bismark Tyobeka, chief executive of the National Nuclear Regulator, told a panel at a nuclear conference in Abu Dhabi.

South Africa’s environmental department has granted authorization to state-owned power utility Eskom to build a new 4,000 megawatt nuclear power plant in the Western Cape province, Reuters reported in mid-October.

Construction at Duynefontein, close to South Africa’s only existing nuclear site Koeberg, will only go ahead once the regulator has granted an installation site license.

But Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba has made abundantly clear that South Africa, staring down the barrel of costly credit downgrades while its economy barely grows, cannot entertain a nuclear project and could only do so when the economy rebounds.

“In terms of regulatory capacity-building, we have updated our resource plan to cater for more employees to work on the new nuclear build project,” Tyobeka said.

The project has also faced judicial set-backs. In April, a South African pact with Russia’s Rosatom to build nuclear reactors was deemed unlawful by a court.

Nuclear reactor makers including Rosatom, South Korea’s Kepco, France’s EDF and Areva, Toshiba-owned Westinghouse and China’s CGN are eyeing the South African project, which could be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Writing by Ed Stoddard; Editing by James Macharia