I have blogged in the past about the aggressive Russia push to market Russian nuclear power reactors to other countries. South Africa has recently been considering the purchase of reactors from Russia. Earlier this week, Vladimir Slivyak with the Russian environmental group Ecodefense participated in a seminar at the University of Johannesburg about future deployment of nuclear power in South Africa. The title of his presentation was "Are Russian nuclear reactors a viable solution to the South African crisis?”
In September of 2014, Russia and South Africa signed an intergovernmental agreement for the possible construction of about a gigawatt of new nuclear energy production. The agreement stipulates that the Russian nuclear utility Rosatom would build, own and operate the reactors. The agreement states that Rosatom would have a twenty year guarantee of a set price for the purchase of the electricity produced by the reactors. The project is estimated to cost between nine billion to seventeen billion dollars. The agreement is still under discussion between the two governments.
The agreement also says that Rosatom is indemnified from any liability from nuclear accidents for the life of the reactor(s). It states that South Africa is “solely responsible for any damage both within and outside the territory of the Republic of South Africa”. Slivyak is very critical of this particular part of the agreement. He points out that there have been many nuclear accidents in the six decades that nuclear power has been utilized. Rostekhnadzor, the Russian state nuclear regulator, says that there were thirty nine "incidents" at Russian nuclear power plants in 2013 alone. The main causes were "mismanagement, defects in equipment and design errors".
Russia currently operates thirty four power reactors. Many of these reactors have had their life extended from the original thirty years to forty five years. Russia only gets about five percent of its electricity from nuclear power and is not investing heavily in new nuclear power reactors. In 2008, the Russians announced plans to begin construction of thirteen gigawatts of new nuclear power. Now, in 2015, they are only planning on five and a half gigawatts of new nuclear power because the Russian economy is having serious problems with soft energy prices and international sanctions. In addition, Rosatom apparently is only able to build one reactor a year. Rosatom has been bragging about having orders for twenty seven reactors worth over a hundred billion dollars but is only actually building reactors in China and Belarus.
Slivyak points out that if a country decides to construct new nuclear power reactors, that means that they are making a long term commitment of at least a century. One to three decades for construction, sixty years of operation and three decades for decommissioning. The decommissioning cost is currently estimated at around the cost of construction. With the cost estimate of up to seventeen billion dollars for construction, that would mean that Rosatom which would obligated to decommission the reactors would be committing to paying that cost, adjusted for inflation in a hundred years. Russia does not yet have a standard process for decommissioning so neither they nor the S.A.s can accurately gauge what will have to be done, exactly how long it will take and what the actual cost will be. There is also the problem of dealing with the spent nuclear fuel assemblies which is also the responsibility of Rosatom. This is a serious problem around the world and will not be cheap to solve. If Rosatom is unable to hold up its end of the contract for the required century, that would mean that S.A. would have to pay for the decommissioning or live with a deteriorating useless nuclear power plant.
Slivyak concludes that from an economic point of view, it does not make sense for S.A. to risk a major investment in nuclear power.