Energy department dodges burning nuclear questions

The department of energy says the confusion over a recent nuclear deal, supposedly signed with Russia, was owing to miscommunication rather than mistakes.

The department of energy says the confusion over a recent nuclear deal, supposedly signed with Russia, was owing to miscommunication rather than mistakes.

The department of energy said on Wednesday that it would not withhold from the public any relevant information on a new nuclear build, then proceeded to answer none of the most burning questions.

It was, the department of energy said, a miscommunication. Not a mistake – the kind for which someone can be blamed – but a misunderstanding on the part of the public “due to the fact that some information has been shared not in the correct manner and not in the correct context”.

But that can easily be laid to rest, the department said: Russian nuclear behemoth Rosatom will not necessarily be building what could be up to R1-trillion worth of new nuclear generators for South Africa, because no such agreement has yet been signed. 

“I need to highlight that,” said energy deputy director general for nuclear Zizamele Mbambo. “The procurement process has not started.”

Vague answers
This is in contrast with a statement issued by the department, which appeared to state clearly that an agreement to buy Russian generators had been reached – or which was widely interpreted to say as much by a range of experts, academics, politicians, analysts, vendors, governments and organisations, as well as the public in South Africa and the media in Russia.

Asked whether that statement was a mistake, acting director general for the department Wolsey Barnard was clear: “Not, it wasn’t a mistake.” What it was, if not a mistake, was not clear, although Barnard said the parties had always been clear that they were signing a broad (and therefore vague) co-operation agreement, not a contract.

It would be impossible for such a contract to sneak up on South Africans, Barnard intimated.
“No information relevant to the public will be withheld from the South African population,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. 

No details
But the department found itself to be clear only on the fact that South Africa will be building nuclear power stations, and that those stations could come from suppliers in Russia, China, South Korea, Japan or the United States. It was not able to provide any information on:

  • The wording of the agreement signed with Russia as that could put Rosatom at a competitive disadvantage; 
  • How long it would take to decide on the nuclear technology to be used and who would supply it; 
  • How much the nuclear build would cost; 
  • The system it would use to procure the nuclear generators, not even if it would be a country-to-country acquisition or a build-operate-own project; or
  • The roadmap to decide on procurement or the identified milestones.

Further confusing matters, the department appeared confused on smaller details, such as if the framework agreement signed with Russia was the first such deal to be inked. No, said Barnard, the first had been with South Korea. Yes, said a department fact sheet, Russia “is the first country to sign” such an agreement.

But again and again, department officials said there would definitely, absolutely be a new nuclear build – and that the time to debate that was over, because security of electricity supply comes first.

“If we keep on debating and debating we are going to be sitting here in darkness,” said Barnard.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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