Small modular nuclear reactors have long been utilised by the US Defence Department in aircraft carriers and submarines. Now, a consortium led by South African venture capitalist André Pienaar aims to introduce mini nuclear reactors to South Africa. In an interview with Biznews, Pienaar, the Founder and CEO of C5 Capital, elaborated on plans to bring this technology to the Western Cape. His initial focus is on supplying energy to data centres in the province. Using analogies from television and film, Pienaar envisions transforming the nuclear energy sector in South Africa from the large and hazardous depictions in The Simpsons to the compact, modular reactors used by Tony Stark in Iron Man for clean energy provision. South Africa, he said, possesses a robust nuclear ecosystem and a well-established regulatory framework for nuclear energy. Pienaar revealed that numerous South African nuclear engineers, some with prior experience at Eskom, have relocated to the United States under the same visa that facilitated Einstein’s immigration. These engineers now contribute to X-Energy, a company in which C5 Capital holds a significant stake. The plan to introduce mini reactors to South Africa is still in its early stages, he said. The first milestone, a feasibility study, has been completed. The next step for the consortium will be to finalise the financing model and seek regulatory and permitting approvals. Pienaar believes that bringing mini nuclear reactors for power generation to South Africa is a compelling proposition. “This is South Africa’s opportunity to lose because several other countries are moving forward with similar projects,” he said. Pienaar also shares his plans to democratise space and tells the story of how Nelson Mandela placed his trust in “a 26-year-old white Afrikaans kid.” – Linda van Tilburg
Relevant timestamps from the interview
- 00:08 – Introductions
- 00:42 – Andre Pienaar on the mini nuclear reactors
- 03:59 – On if the nuclear reactors will be for civilian use
- 08:14 – On the nuclear project and how far it is from coming to SA
- 11:59 – How big is it and how much energy will it deliver
- 16:15 – What is the timeline
- 17:34 – Would the government be okay with a private company producing nuclear energy
- 19:35 – On his company C5 Capital and his background in cybersecurity
- 22:28 – Who is Andre Pienaar
- 24:15 – Remaining committed to SA
- 26:27 – Conclusions
Excerpts from the Interview
Adapting military modular nuclear in submarines for civilian applications
The image that we all have of nuclear reactors is often of those large reactor sites, which can be an eyesore on the landscape. This image, perhaps best personified by The Simpsons, is seen as a significant eyesore in the local community and potentially viewed as hazardous. These are Generation Two and Generation Three reactors. However, we’ve come a long way with nuclear innovation, and it really started with nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. These vessels adopted the technology, modularised it, made it smaller, and ensured its safety…
This technology has now been further developed and is safe for civilian applications. We now have generation four reactors, which are entirely safe. The reactor design is such that it switches itself off automatically.
If there’s any problem; the reactor can’t melt down because of the way it’s designed.
The reactor uses what’s known as a pebble bed or the TRISO fuel structure. This means that enriched uranium is encased in three layers of graphite into what we call pebbles in South Africa and TRISO fuel in the US. All of this means that nuclear energy is becoming smaller, more affordable, more accessible, and mobile. The range of applications that we can apply nuclear energy to, specifically nuclear fission, has become much broader.
First Small Modular ‘Iron Man’ Reactor Being Built in Texas
The U.S. Defence Department has initiated a program to replace all the diesel generators used on military bases with small and micro nuclear reactors. One of our portfolio companies, X-Energy, is participating in this program. This is a trend that we expect to see mirrored in the civilian sector.
X-Energy is constructing the first small modular nuclear reactor for an industrial plant in the U.S., in partnership with the Dow Chemical Company at Sea Drift in Texas. To draw an analogy from popular culture, this is reminiscent of the story of Iron Man and Stark Industries. Tony Stark, the main character in Iron Man, and his family’s company, Stark Industries, have their own small modular nuclear reactor. This reactor provides clean energy for all their industrial plants, and Tony miniaturised this technology to power his exoskeleton in the Iron Man movie. We anticipate that what seems very futuristic now will become a reality in the next few decades, within our lifetime.
South African Nuclear Engineers, on ‘Einstein’ Visas, Seed Global Nuclear Energy Sector
X-Energy boasts many South African nuclear engineers as part of its team. These engineers migrated to the U.S. on the same visa that Einstein used, owing to their exceptional nuclear expertise. The South African nuclear industry has seeded the global nuclear energy sector with talent worldwide, and X-Energy is just one example.
There are dozens of South Africans, for instance, working on the UAE’s nuclear program and the Barakah nuclear reactor program in the UAE. South Africa has been a leader in the nuclear sector. The Koeberg civilian nuclear energy program, which started in the 1980s, has been a significant success. These reactors have been the mainstay of energy and clean energy for Cape Town and the Western Cape region. They have an impeccable safety record and are one of the most cost-efficient sources of energy in South Africa. As a result, South Africa has a robust nuclear ecosystem, not only of know-how and technology and engineers but also from a well-established regulatory perspective.
Nuclear Energy to Address Energy Poverty Across Africa
We have an opportunity to share our nuclear expertise not only with the international community, as has happened through commercial circumstances, but specifically with the rest of the continent. Energy poverty is one of the most significant challenges we face in Africa, given the growing population, the young demographic, and the rapidly expanding economies of several countries.
South Africa has the opportunity to share our knowledge in nuclear energy and nuclear innovation to help alleviate energy poverty across Africa. This is an exciting and tremendous opportunity for both the country and the continent, one that we need to seize with both hands.
First Hurdle Crossed to Bring Mini Nuclear Reactors to South Africa
We’re at an early stage of this long-term project. Everything involving nuclear energy requires a long-term perspective, considering the average life of a reactor is 80 years. This necessitates thinking on an intergenerational basis.
The first reactor will generate about 320 megawatts, which means four modularised units of 80 megawatts. Considering that the Koeberg plant produces about 1,800 megawatts at an optimum level, which significantly contributes to Cape Town and the Western Cape’s energy needs, this is a substantial development. Apart from the Hydro Project, the Western Cape primarily imports its energy. Therefore, it’s crucial that we responsibly manage this opportunity to extend the life of the Koeberg plant.
We aspire to establish a network of six small modular nuclear reactors that can either supplement the growing energy needs in the region or substitute some of Koeberg’s contribution. This is also an opportunity to revive and refresh the nuclear ecosystem in South Africa and the Western Cape region, given Koeberg’s long standing presence. Our partner, Lesedi Engineering, the leading nuclear engineering firm in Africa, is headquartered in Cape Town.
There are different work streams involved, including regulatory and permitting, financing, engineering, and safety. We’ve just passed through the first gate, which is our feasibility study. The next gate will be to finalise the financing model and the project’s financing. In parallel, we’ll progress the regulatory and permitting approval to become an independent power producer, aiming to become the first private sector-financed independent power producer for nuclear energy in the country.
While it’s challenging to put a timeline around the permitting and regulatory approval process, we plan to start this process in earnest early in the new year, while continuing to move forward with all other aspects of the project. We believe this is such a compelling proposition that we can’t envision a scenario in which the government won’t support it.
No Government Funding Sought: This is Really South Africa’s Opportunity to Lose
All the financing for this project will be done by the private sector, creating a new model for public-private partnerships in nuclear energy generation in South Africa. South Africans have always been imaginative in creating new solutions to solve difficult problems, often rising to the challenge when faced with adversity.
This is South Africa’s opportunity to lose, as several other countries in Africa are moving forward with similar projects. Ghana, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda have all announced their interest in small modular nuclear innovation. However, they don’t have the benefit of an established and successful nuclear sector like we have in South Africa. They don’t have the benefit of the pebble bed experience or a well-established and trusted regulatory framework.
Therefore, this is really South Africa’s opportunity to lose. There’s no reason why the country can’t lead this initiative across the continent and then partner and export know-how, products, and services to other African countries. This will not only generate income but also create more jobs and opportunities for our young people.
Plans to democratise space
C5 Capital a specialist investment firm with a focus on three areas: cybersecurity, space, and advanced nuclear. Our journey began with investing in cybersecurity. As we delved deeper into the cybersecurity sector, we realised that its future lies in space, where digital infrastructure is being built. The most vivid example of this is Elon Musk’s Starlink broadband satellite network, but there are others, like Amazon’s Kuiper.
GPS has provided us with accurate time, location, and navigation for a long time, but it is increasingly being tampered with by hackers. As much of cybersecurity moved into space, we found it necessary to invest in the space sector. One of our flagship investments in the space sector is Axiom Space.
Axiom Space, a US company, has a contract with NASA to build, own, and operate the next international space station. NASA is not building a new space station; instead, it is focusing on the Artemis moon mission and beyond that, Mars. The current space station, which has been a great success, needs to be replaced, and Axiom is leading the way.
As part of this, we are democratising space. Until now, the space station has been an exclusive club of just 27 nations. We are opening up the possibility of having a space station programme to any responsible member of the international community, as well as to corporations, foundations, and private individuals.
So far, we’ve had two successful missions to the space station, AX-1 and AX-2. A third mission will go in the first quarter of next year, and we’ve just announced an agreement with the British government for a British mission, which will be AX-4. These missions to the existing space station are all part of building the new ecosystem for Axiom Station, which will launch at the end of 2024 or the beginning of 2025.
Son of a ‘Dominee’ (pastor): ‘I Probably Read Too Many Books
I was born in South Africa, in Oudtshoorn. My father was a pastor, and my mother was a businesswoman. As a young boy, I was quite sickly, allergic to dairy products and suffering from asthma. This led to me spending a lot of time in bed, reading books. I probably read too many books.
Despite my love for playing rugby, cricket, and athletics, I was never a gold medallist in any of them. However, I had a deep love for reading books. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, we were all captivated by space programs, Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek. These stories captured my imagination.
There’s nothing more enjoyable than pursuing your dreams and passions, and seeing if you can bring about positive change. That’s what motivates me and gets me out of bed. I deeply care about the security, safety, and stability of the world that we’re going to leave for our children.
When I look at these things, I also consider the international and national security applications and implications of technologies and innovations. What it means and whether it will make the world a safer place or not.
Nelson Mandela’s Trust in a Young Afrikaans Kid: The Birth of the Scorpions
South Africa is in my blood. The dust of South Africa is in my blood. I care very deeply about the country. In Washington, DC, I had the great privilege of dedicating the first public space to the memory of Nelson Mandela in the form of the Nelson Mandela Freedom Plaza. This plaza will be based in front of the US Institute for Peace, facing the Lincoln Memorial. I imagine a conversation between President Mandela and President Lincoln about the future.
The purpose of this dedication was to create a space that reminds people of Nelson Mandela’s legacy and leadership. His focus on diversity and inclusion, treating them as strengths rather than weaknesses, is a remarkable example of reconciliation. His extraordinary resilience, his emphasis on the importance of education and being a lifelong student, and his great love for democracy and the rule of law are all part of his legacy. Mandela always said, “Cherish democracy,” and if you cherish something, it’s much more than defending or protecting it.
In my 20s, I had the opportunity to work with President Mandela and his cabinet on the creation of the Scorpions in South Africa. This was a very formative experience for me.
The fact that President Mandela and his cabinet, in a newly democratic South Africa, gave a 26-year-old white Afrikaans kid an opportunity to be part of something really important and meaningful, and gave me their complete and unconditional backing on it, was something that was difficult and sensitive. It often ended up with very difficult cases, but I could always count on the support of the government as the Scorpions emerged as the first law enforcement agency of the new and democratic South Africa.