South Africa’s new nuclear renaissance


South Africa’s new nuclear renaissance

There is a growing connection between nuclear energy and artificial intelligence, which needs greater amounts of power than ever before in the digital revolution. ANDRÉ PIENAAR explains and examines the opportunities for South Africa


EINSTEIN said energy was everything. Energy today is the wealth of nations and the key to South Africa and Africa’s development.

When President William Ruto of Kenya recently visited Washington, DC, he set out a bold vision for his country to generate clean geothermal energy to power a giant new data centre that can attract investors and make Kenya the hub of artificial intelligence (AI) in Africa.

The announcement by energy and electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa that South Africa plans to add 2,900 MW of new nuclear energy generation as clean energy to the economy can equally unlock unprecedented opportunities for job creation, innovation and growth in our technology sector.

The minister’s announcement means the government of national unity (GNU) can lead a nuclear renaissance that has the potential to end energy poverty in South Africa and Africa permanently, while enabling AI to be an engine for growth in South Africa and the continent.

This announcement, if realised, will more than double the existing capacity of Koeberg, home of Africa’s only operational nuclear reactors. Koeberg provides 1,900 MW of clean energy to South Africa’s economy and 10% of the country’s overall energy. The new plan will increase nuclear’s contribution to about 20%. This is similar to the US and the UK. Most importantly, nuclear will produce more than half of South Africa’s clean energy, enabling the country not only to grow its economy but also to meet its climate commitments. 

Data centres as engines of growth

AI uses algorithms to learn from vast amounts of data to solve complex problems faster than human minds can. It is possible because of vast computing power through data centres that have enabled us to collect more data in the last 20 years than in the preceding 2,000.

The digital economy in South Africa and Africa is one of the fastest growing in the world. Africa has more mobile phone users than the US and a young, digital-savvy population, but fewer data centres than Switzerland. This creates enormous scope for future growth.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

South Africa has the most sophisticated data centre ecosystem in Africa. It has more than 37 data centre regions in comparison to Kenya’s 13 and Nigeria’s 11. All the major US cloud technology companies are invested in digital infrastructure in South Africa — Google, Oracle, Microsoft and Amazon. These strategic partnerships give the South African economy access to innovation, know-how and affordable computing power. They are as valuable to our economy as corporate South Africa’s deep and well-established access to the US capital markets.

AI is possible because of the industrialisation of computing processing power through data centres, the factories of 21st-century economies. Today, data centres are engines of growth where jobs are created and productivity is increased. Like factories, data centres require sustainable and affordable clean baseload energy that is always on.

The scale of the energy needs of data centres has been significantly increased by the growing size of the large learning models (LLMs) of data that are the building blocks of AI. According to a New Yorker report, the popular chatbot ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI, uses a staggering half a million kilowatt-hours daily to handle its 200 million user requests. This translates to over 17,000 times more energy than the average US household consumes. A single request to ChatGPT consumes 156%-250% more energy than the same search on Google.

As a result, new worldwide partnerships are being forged between AI companies and nuclear energy companies as a reliable source of affordable clean energy. Nuclear energy is powering the AI boom.

Atoms for jobs

South Africa remains Africa’s only nuclear energy power and is one of only five nuclear energy powers in Brics — the others are China, Russia, India and the United Arab Emirates.

Like the UAE, South Africa’s nuclear energy sector has been closely and successfully partnered with the US and France over many decades.

This enabled South Africa in partnership with the US nuclear company Westinghouse and the French Framatom to develop Koeberg as the country's cheapest and most reliable energy source. In addition, South Africa by 2010 was a world leader in advanced nuclear energy with its small nuclear reactor design for a pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR).

Although then president Jacob Zuma set the country back decades by discontinuing the PBMR programme in 2011, the country has maintained a vibrant nuclear supply chain and access to much of the talent that enabled it to build the PBMR programme. In the US, the small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) company that C5 Capital is invested in — X-energy — has several South African nuclear engineers on its team who arrived in the US on the same visa as Einstein originally did.

As a result, South Africa has access to advanced nuclear energy in the form of SMRs and micro modular reactors (MMRs) that are ideally suited to power the country’s data centres with clean energy.

The transformative power of AI

With nuclear energy as a source of clean energy for data centres, South Africa can use AI to help solve the country and Africa’s toughest challenges and problems.

The government circulated a first discussion paper on AI in March. It contains small seeds of an ethical AI policy that will enable the GNU to scale AI to help transform industries and solve complex problems faster. The country already has four AI research centres, including the first AI research centre in Africa for the military.

The private sector has an important role to play. South Africa has a thriving AI startup community. Tech founders in South Africa have created more than 246 exciting AI-based startups that help solve problems across diverse sectors including healthcare, equal opportunities, education and food security. One example is Farmer AI, which allows farmers to use an AI app on their phone to solve some of the toughest challenges in farming, such as a real-time assessment of a field’s water levels.

It is behind the bold vision of combining advanced nuclear and AI that C5 Capital is investing in South Africa to build the first SMR to power the country’s data centres. This multibillion-rand private sector-led investment project will add 320 MW of clean energy to the economy to scale AI for everyone’s benefit. Once the first-of-a-kind reactor is built, it will enable significant cost reductions, a local value chain to create thousands of new jobs and a network of SMRs to be built across the country and the continent. The affordable and reliable electricity from this network of SMRs will help to end energy poverty permanently, not only in South Africa but across the continent, if we share these atoms-for-jobs with other African countries that need access to affordable clean energy for industrial applications.

A private sector-led investment programme of this scale requires high levels of transparency and good governance to avoid the corruption quagmire of the Rosatom programme, in which Zuma wanted to bring in outdated Russian technology at a cost of $60 billion. For this reason, C5 is establishing an anticorruption and organised crime committee from the outset to oversee project finance and execution.

Former president Nelson Mandela said it is impossible until it is done. This could be the motto for the GNU. It has the opportunity to end energy poverty and to transform the wealth of our nation.


BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.