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CAPE TOWN, July 11 (Reuters) - South Africa needs to start planning now for new nuclear power capacity to come online after 2045, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe said on Thursday, reopening a heated debate about whether the country should build more nuclear reactors.
President Cyril Ramaphosa put nuclear expansion on the back burner after taking office in February 2018, saying a project championed by his predecessor Jacob Zuma was unaffordable.
But senior officials in Ramaphosa's governing African National Congress party have said South Africa could be open to building more nuclear capacity when the economy improves.
South Africa currently operates one nuclear power plant, Koeberg, with an installed capacity of around 1,900 megawatts (MW).
"Given the long-term planning horizon for nuclear power plants, it is imperative that the planning work for the new nuclear power plants should commence now," Mantashe, who has headed a merged mining and energy ministry since May, said in a speech to parliament.
"It is crucial for South Africa to plan for additional nuclear capacity beyond 2045," Mantashe said, adding that a project was under way to extend the life of Koeberg by 20 years from the end of its designed life in 2024.
Mantashe's comments will be welcomed by major nuclear reactor vendors like Russian state firm Rosatom, which was one of the frontrunners for Zuma's nuclear project.
Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the subject of a nuclear deal at a meeting with Ramaphosa last year, a sign that Russia was still interested in the project.
"Koeberg demonstrates the benefits of nuclear power and gives reason to South Africa continuing with the nuclear expansion programme," Mantashe said.
Zuma's nuclear expansion project envisaged adding an additional 9,600 MW of capacity, but ratings agencies cited it as a cause for concern given recurring budget deficits and rising debt levels.
Opposition parties also argued the project would be a conduit for corruption, despite denials from Zuma and his allies.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf Writing by Alexander Winning; editing by David Evans)