Traditionally, South Africa’s energy sources have been its large coal reserves (85 percent) and imported oil (10 percent), much of it from Iran. In addition, South Africa maintains the only nuclear power station on the African continent, Koeberg, near Cape Town. There are two reactors at Koeberg, which produce between 5 and 6 percent of South Africa’s energy.
To accommodate actual and potential economic growth, the power sector must expand. The Zuma government appears to be building domestic support for an expansion of the nuclear power sector, which in turn will likely mean the increase production of enriched uranium. South Africa’s uranium production has recently declined due to the economic downturn and increasing global caution surrounding nuclear energy since the catastrophe at the Fukushima plant in Japan.
On August 14, the director general of the South African Department of Energy, Nelisiwe Magubane characterized nuclear power as a necessity, not an option. She cited, inter alia, climate change commitments to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. She also noted that many of South Africa’s coal-fired power stations are near the end of their useful life. She referred to funding nuclear power plants through public-private partnerships involving the state-owned power company, Eskom.
South Africa’s coal reserves are large, and the country is both a significant exporter and importer of coal. South Africa has also had an important oil relationship with Iran, dating back to the days of apartheid and the Shah. South African refineries were built specifically to accommodate Iran’s heavy sour type crude oil. However, the current U.S. and European Union sanctions regime against Iran has meant that South Africa had to change quickly its oil supplier. Oil prices have increased, which is widely seen as a result and South African public opinion does not support the Iranian sanctions regime. Iranian sanctions and their consequences have probably made an expanded domestic nuclear power option more attractive to many South Africans as a means of achieving energy security.
South Africa has been a significant producer of uranium, and has the technology and personnel to expand its nuclear industry. But, expansion will mean more uranium enrichment and that in turn leads to nuclear non-proliferation concerns. Moreover, South Africa has long supported the right of any country to develop nuclear power. South Africa’s nuclear know-how was spurred by its development of a nuclear weapons capability during the 1970s. However, shortly before the transition to “non-racial” democracy in 1994, then-president F.W. de Klerk dismantled the country’s nuclear weapons capacity. Since then, South Africa has been active on the entire range of nuclear non-proliferation issues. An expansion of South Africa’s nuclear power sector, with a corresponding increase in the production of enriched uranium, provides an opportunity for closer Washington-Pretoria dialogue on an issue of mutual importance.