/ 21 May 2015

Shake hands with us on nuclear deal, says Rosatom

Russian nuclear physicist Vladimir Artisyuk spoke to potential recipients of Russian nuclear technology at North-West University's Potchefstroom campus.
Russian nuclear physicist Vladimir Artisyuk spoke to potential recipients of Russian nuclear technology at North-West University's Potchefstroom campus.

His staff could not yet include South Africa on a slide showing the many countries that intend to purchase Russian nuclear technology in the near future, Professor Vladimir Artisyuk told an audience in Potchefstroom on Thursday. The slide only included countries that had come to Russian nuclear company Rosatom to “shake hands”.

“So far no South African people have come to us,” Artisyuk said. He hopes that will change soon.

Artisyuk is a bona fide Russian nuclear physicist who has co-authored papers on transplutonium doping and the use of simple uranium oxide light water reactors in developing countries.

But he is also closely aligned with Rosatom’s development of training for its customers and acts as something of a nuclear foreign minister, travelling the world to speak to “potential recipients of Russian nuclear technology” or, in Rosatom shorthand, “embarking states” – a designation Rosatom hopes to apply to South Africa soon.

“We will commence with the actual nuclear procurement process in the second quarter of this financial year,” Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told Parliament this week.

New power stations
If all goes well, that would see a bidder named some time in 2016 for what could be up to R1-trillion in spending on a fleet of new nuclear power stations in South Africa.

Days after Joemat-Pettersson’s announcement of that timeline, Artisyuk was at Potchefstoom’s North-West University campus to present a prize – a trip to a nuclear power plant in Russia – to the winners of an essay competition on “fulfilling the energy needs and developing nuclear industry in South Africa”.

The competition is one of many outreach initiatives by Rosatom that have been extended to South Africa, some aimed at the children of nuclear workers, some at government and some at academic institutions.

“By the way, your winter looks like Russian summer,” Artisyuk jokingly told a lecture hall for a presentation on Russian nuclear technology, with emphasis on its safety advantages. Delegations from countries such as Vietnam and Egypt survived stays at his institution outside Moscow, he quipped, which happens to be quite beautiful, and conveniently located not far from several major airports.

Should any South Africans make their way to that institution with its advantageous location, Artisyuk implied, they would likely be “nuclear decision-makers”, the future managers of nuclear power plants in South Africa, and the regulators who would oversee those plants.

Rosatom estimates it would need to train about 300 South Africans at Russian facilities in order for South Africans to consume its technology intelligently.

Proven technology
What South Africa would be buying, should it happen to buy Russian, Artisyuk said in his presentation, would be proven technology backed by specialist training and full management of the nuclear fuel life cycle, including Russia taking ownership of nuclear waste. Mostly, though, it would be buying peace of mind.

“Russians from the beginning were thinking about safety,” Artisyuk said, extolling the virtues of Russian fuel unit design and its unique properties.

The proof, he held, is that Russia is using its own products, with plans to double its domestic generation of electricity from nuclear power plants over the next 15 years.

Why the expansion? “Safe, cheap and reliable,” Artisyuk said, a catchphrase he often repeated.

Joemat-Pettersson this week said vendor parades had been completed with potential nuclear equipment suppliers including South Korea, China and France.

Nuclear agreements with the national governments of those vendors – including an agreement Rosatom last year interpreted as, in effect, guaranteeing it the South African sale – remain secret. They will be presented to Cabinet for the first time on Wednesday, with ratification by Parliament to follow.