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South Africa's Russian nuclear dream boat

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Dominique Doyle - Energy Policy Officer at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg

The South African government is forging ahead with its plan to procure 9600 MW of nuclear power, even though the idea is extremely unpopular in most sectors of South African society. So far, several vendors have paraded their technology and Intergovernmental Framework Agreements have been signed with Russia, China, France, the United States and South Korea. The contents of which were kept secret from the South African public up until very recently − except for the Russian one which was leaked by Vladimir Slivyak of Ecodefense to the South African based environmental justice organization, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg.

The agreements with the United States, France and China were finally tabled at Parliament last week where the Minister of Energy announced that the nuclear procurement will proceed as soon as next month. The contents of the agreements show that Russia's Rosatom is clearly leading the pack.

The government's relentless nuclear vision has left many South Africans scratching their heads in confusion. While the country is in the midst of a power crisis, and power cuts are becoming a daily occurrence; most stakeholders, including the Energy Intensive Users Group, feel that 9600 MW of nuclear power will not be the solution. In short, it simply will be too expensive. One plausible reason for the aggressive push for an expanded nuclear fleet is a political union between Russian President Vladimir Putin and South African President Jacob Zuma, who is whispered to be at the core of the nuclear drive. The evidence that the odds are focused at Russia's favor in the bidding process is overwhelming; with the Intergovernmental Framework Agreement with Russia being concluded first and in far more detail than the other agreements.

South Africa's fanatical desire to procure nuclear energy, which will be the most expensive procurement in the history of the new dispensation valued at 1 trillion South African Rand (US$77b; €69b), peaks at a time when the South African electricity system and state owned single utility are at a crisis point.

The state owned electricity utility, Eskom, claims that it took the political decision to "keep the lights on" and neglected to do the maintenance on its aging and insufficient fleet of coal-fired power stations. As a result, the South African public is facing daily blackouts, or "load shedding," at an estimated cost to the economy of nearly 80 billion South African Rand per month. Eskom is also failing to complete its answer to the power crisis, the Medupi power station − the fourth largest coal-fired power station in the world − currently running over budget by at least 180 million South African Rand (US$14m; €12m), and most likely delayed until 2025.

Despite wasting billions over the years, Eskom is pointing the blame at the South African public, and requesting yet another rate increase of 25% to cover the cost of burning diesel in its Open Gas Turbine Cycles for peaking power during times of high electricity demand.

Despite being the thorn in the side of the South African public, Eskom is the entity entrusted as the applicant for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the first two nuclear reactors dubbed Nuclear 1. The final EIA for Nuclear 1 has yet to be completed and is technology unspecific, showing once again how devious the nuclear plans are.

The suggested site is even as bizarre as the nuclear ambition itself. Nuclear 1 would be constructed in the idyllic and unique landscape of Thyspunt, off the coast of the Eastern Cape of South Africa and situated near the world-famous surfing hotspot, Jefferies Bay. The location is only accessible by one road built through sand dunes and so frequently gets blown away by the violent storms prone to the region. The area is also vulnerable to water shortages compounded by the failure of the local authorities to maintain water treatment plants and execute effective service delivery. Another one of the many reasons why a nuclear build is entirely unsuitable for the region is that about 4,000 people employed in the local calamari fishing industry would lose their jobs.

Besides the fact that nuclear procurement is commencing in the absence of an approved EIA, which is technology unspecific, the procurement is even forging ahead in the absence of an Integrated Energy Plan (IRP). By South African law, the IRP must be updated every two years. The most recent update was circulated for public comment towards the end of 2013, however that update, which did not support nuclear procurement because of the sheer expense, has mysteriously disappeared. The Department of Energy is now preferring to refer to the IRP 2010 which features nuclear as an integral part of the energy mix; rendering this procurement process quite obviously unlawful.

Sadly, what the South African government's nuclear ambitions reveal about current South Africa is a gradual melt-down of the principles of democracy and transparent governance enshrined in the new South African Constitution. This nuclear procurement process shows how forces are lining up within the government to support the political wish-list of an elite few. Even if many within government fundamentally disagree with Russian nuclear reactors to solve the energy crisis, it is doubtful that they will risk their positions by speaking out. But perhaps the most disheartening feature of the proposed nuclear deal is how it is being sold to the public. Through the nuclear deal the government is promising jobs, industry development and foreign investment. The government is using the pinch of poverty to the largely unemployed and energy impoverished mass to open up the flood gates to enrich its own cronies.