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Eskom Puts The Nuclear Option On Hold

Africa’s large utility says that splitting the atom to generate electricity is far too expensive

Eskom, the South African power utility, has cancelled a $12 billion plan to build a nuclear plant as the credit freeze cuts financing.

Groups led by Areva, the world’s top supplier of nuclear reactors, and Toshiba’s Westinghouse Electric vied for the order. A global recession and an expected drop in energy demand is halting spending on projects from Canada to the Middle East and Africa.

“It’s too big, we can’t do it,” said Eskom spokesperson Fani Zulu. “The bidders were informed after we took the decision at  a board meeting.”

Eskom is looking to borrow about $15 billion and is in talks with the World Bank for a loan of $5 billion. Its credit rating was cut by Moody’s Investors Services in 2008 after regulators allowed a 27 percent rise in electricity prices rather than 61 percent.

“We’re disappointed because we put a lot of work into the process, but we’re hopeful the South African government will remain committed to developing nuclear power,” said Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier, a spokesperson for Areva in Paris, “If South Africa comes back to us, we’ll be there.”

The South African government immediately said it would still go ahead with installing Nuclear plants only that it would be at a slower pace and a scaled down version of what Eskom planned to do.

Eskom has not kept pace with local electricity demand and has restricted supply to firms including Anglo American and Xstrata.

The South African economy would probably grow at a slower pace than forecast by Eskom in the next five years, reducing power needs, said economist Jac Laubscher of Sanlam. “It’s not a train smash that they’ve cancelled the nuclear plan.” The global recession and rising interest rates have reduced government projections, with the economy now expected to expand three percent (3%) in 2009 and 4% in 2010.

The plan was also cancelled to ensure that Eskom’s ability to provide competitively priced energy was not jeopardised, the government said. South Africa had planned to generate 20 000 megawatts from nuclear reactors by 2025, more than 10 times the current output. Power demand has risen by 50% since 1994, while government indecision postponed Eskom’s expansion.

The reasons for the pause were specific to South Africa, and did not reflect the general state in the nuclear industry, as shown by efforts by utilities in the UK and the US to build nuclear power plants, Areva’s Saulnier said.

Areva proposed two 1,650MW reactors, while Westinghouse offered to build three 1,140MW reactors.

South African owned construction groups Aveng and Murray & Roberts formed part of the groups bidding for the contract.

Electricite de France, the world’s top operator of atomic reactors, has South Africa among its priorities for nuclear expansion.

Still the country as a while remained “committed to nuclear power” to lessen the nation’s carbon footprint, Portia Molefe, director-general of the department of public enterprises said.

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