/ 25 September 2014

Editorial: Nuclear time bomb ticks away

Presidents Zuma and Putin.
Presidents Zuma and Putin.

By the accounts of those on both the technical and political sides of the energy fence, President Jacob Zuma is personally – very personally – driving South Africa’s nuclear ambitions, in much the same way Vladimir Putin is driving those of Russia.

If they do so to get going on important projects (providing electricity to South Africa’s thirsty grid and expanding Russia’s flagging export industry), that is laudable leadership. If they do so for the national ego, it is a failure of governance.

The central problem is how much we do not know. The first rule of nuclear: you don’t talk about nuclear. You shout about nuclear, loudly, from opposite sides of a very polarised playing field, while decisions and activities are couched in the broad language of national security, which invites abuse.

Much speculation followed this week’s announcement of an agreement between the two countries. Eskom has been shouldered out of the process, technocrats have been sidelined, regulators were caught unawares, and industry was surprised by this sudden burst of speed after years of silence. It has all has been happening in the Cabinet’s energy subcommittee, chaired by Zuma – or at a higher level. Economic and technological decisions on nuclear power are now a politician-to-politician matter.

Nuclear energy is unwieldy and expensive, as the state’s advisers have pointed out. There are safety and security fears, plus the real possibility that a botched deal could bankrupt the country. Ultimately, decisions about nuclear energy are decisions about the issues that matter most to South Africa: jobs, economic development, safety and our place in the world.

We are being told that South Africa is adhering to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s milestones for nuclear capability, but we have no indication of where we are on that road or in the decision-making process. As the South African Institute of International Affairs said in a report last year: “The costly and secretive nature of government’s nuclear plans raises serious questions of probity, especially when viewed against the backdrop of wider unease over failure in governance and transparency standards.”

It seems likely that 15 years from now, another commission will try – and fail – to get information about issues of national security. It will ask why the government was given a blank cheque and who made the decisions. We must demand answers before it is too late.