In Parliament

Tina, from fish to fishy nuclear

3 October 2014

If the potential purchase of R1 trillion worth of nuclear technology didn’t have the potential to bankrupt South Africa, this week’s press briefing by the energy department denying it had signed a deal to procure eight VVER nuclear reactors from Rosatom, of Russia, could be put down to a comedy of errors. (VVER = Voda Voda Energo Reactors, derived from the Russian Vodo-Vodyanoi Energetichesky Reaktor, a water pressurised reactor designed and developed in the old Soviet Union).

True to form, new Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson – fresh from the agriculture, forestry and fisheries ministry where she made a complete mess of absolutely everything except the Zuma shmoosing division – wasn’t at the briefing. Acting director general Wolsey Barnard, thoroughly inarticulate in English, explained that she was at cabinet.  He made feeble attempts to convince the journalists in Pretoria and at Parliament in Cape Town that although no deals had been signed, South Africa was committed to nuclear power “which is safe and sustainable in the long term”. It's enough to make a cat laugh.

Chris Yelland, a nuclear analyst and journalist from EE publishers, went straight for the jugular. He pointed out that Rosatom had sent out a statement confirming that a deal to supply the eight reactors had been struck. This was repeated by the energy department itself “in plain English that everyone can understand”. But Barnard rambled on in an incomprehensible fashion. He would not admit a mistake had been made in the wording of the energy department statement. “No, it wasn’t a mistake,” said Barnard, explaining that “just in terms of where this misunderstanding comes from, each country has its own technology. And to procure... for 9600MW, you’re going to need to utilise the different technologies that are being offered by the various vendors.” Given that Joemat-Pettersson is likely not to tolerate anybody who states anything clearly, his job is safe for now (she had a flurry of directors general and DDGs in agriculture who knew little or nothing about fisheries while she was minister there). It may be a winning recipe to remain vague and incomprehensible at all times.

Yelland pointed out that the energy department statement issued in September had not only stated that South Africa  had entered into an agreement with the Russians for the construction of eight nuclear reactors but the agreement included wide-ranging technology cooperation. The statement had said clearly that the agreement included construction of the reactors.

A question from ANN7, a television station which is ideologically in love with the ruling ANC, even asked a question about the costing of the nuclear programme and whether Russia - and other potential nuclear vendor nations China and France - would build the required reactors and “then sell us electricity ... or are we considering investing ourselves”. There was no answer to this question. Barnard later, facing a barrage of questions from Business Day and the Sunday Times about the financing model, said that as the matter would need to go to cabinet there were be considerations of “confidentiality” over the costings. Keep in mind, we're talking about public money here – your taxes - that will pay these bills. Eskom, which sensibly has distanced itself from the nuclear build programme although it currently manages Koeberg, is already wanting another R220 billion facility from government to carry on its existing chaotic and very expensive programme. 

Imagine the nightmare electricity bills those nuclear power plants will be generating if the government is to somehow finance the R1 trillion - that is 1000 billion rand - it's likely to cost to build them. Imagine the devastating impact on the economy. It is no wonder that Joemat-Pettersson was not at the briefing. She fears being asked whether the ANC’s back pocket has been buttered by the Russians. She probably also fears that questions whether politicians - including the head of state -  personally benefited from the deal as it appears Zuma did to the tune of R500 000 a year from the arms deal with the French company Thales.

There is one huge stinking rat lurking in this nuclear programme and there is something deeply fishy, in particular, about the secrecy surrounding the Russian deal. Deputy director general for energy Zizamele Mbambo vaguely suggested that a technical team had established “a number of technical sub-working groups looking at the aspect of the nuclear build programme, looking at the issues of corporate finance, procurement issues and industrial localisation”. South Africa was at the stage of “preparing for the procurement programme”. While the procurement process “has not yet started... what the department is doing (is) going on the study tours to (Russia etc) to see what these member countries... what technologies are offered”.

If only we could be confident that what South Africa has been doing is just window shopping. We're not.

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