South Africa plans to construct 10 nuclear power plants with nearly 10GW of nuclear generating capacity. The project is expected to cost US$69.5bn.
South Africa has frequently been presented with offers to build light-water reactors, which are almost exclusively in use around the world today.
However, according to nuclear scientists, most of them insist that light-water reactors will be phased out in the near future in favor of reactor designs that operate at or near atmospheric pressure – the two most likely being sodium-cooled fast reactors or molten salt reactors.
Both of these will be able to be mass produced and deployed quickly, for they avoid the expensive pressure vessels and other pressurized components inherent in light-water reactor design. The atmospheric pressure operation also imparts a considerable safety factor that alone could be a compelling reason to choose a light-water reactor alternative.
To a country like South Africa that has a lot of semi-arid land going unused for lack of water, there is an alternative of sodium-cooled or molten salt reactors that can be invaluable.
Though, these types of reactors operate at considerably higher temperatures than molten salt reactors that makes them inherently more efficient at producing electricity. Still, there is another advantage that those high temperatures confer. The heat can be used to desalinate seawater.
The USSR built the fast reactor in 1973, the BN-350, in what is now Kazakhstan. It was a hybrid power plant that produced electricity and at the same time desalinated water to provide fresh water for the domestic and agricultural use.
To date, this is the only such hybrid nuclear power plant ever deployed. Over 40 years desalination technology has advances to similar hybrid power-water plants using the larger BN designs that are an attractive prospect.
If those 10 new nuclear power plants were built as hybrid electricity-desalination plants, the amount of fresh water produced from seawater could provide such vast quantities of water that what is now unused semiarid land could be turned into a garden, creating an agricultural industry worth hundreds of billions of rand a year. This has been demonstrated in the semiarid Central Valley of California (with snowmelt rather than desalination), which now produces over half the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the U.S. on land that was previously unusable.
Such a project in South Africa can as well create countless jobs for unskilled workers, creating a path for currently unemployed South Africans to lift themselves out of poverty. The advantages of such a path are so transformative as to be considered a national imperative.
Rather than throwing vast amounts of money away building 22GW of wind and solar facilities, choose instead to build the 10 gigawatts of nuclear capacity with the clear stipulation that the power plants will be hybrid plants. The money saved can be put to much better use building the agricultural infrastructure that will raise the standard of living of the entire country.