Nuclear will overcome recent ruling setback

Koeberg, the African continent's only commercial nuclear power plant. (Photo: SA Tourism)

Koeberg, the African continent's only commercial nuclear power plant. (Photo: SA Tourism)

Despite the intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) entered into by government with Russia, America and South Korea for information exchange in the nuclear build programme being overturned in the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday April 26 2017, the industry remains positive and steadfast on the fact that nuclear technology is necessary to support the national development agenda of the country. The court judgment is a legal setback that highlights the importance of transparency and process.

The court ruled in favour of Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute to set aside all IGAs, declaring them unlawful and unconstitutional. This will impact government and Eskom’s ability to embark on the proposed nuclear build unless the correct procedures are followed, and will ensure that only absolutely stringent procurement processes take place.

The Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (Niasa) says that it has noted the judgment handed down by the Western Cape High court. “As an industry we respect the court’s judgment. We look to the department of energy for leadership on the matter and will take their lead on the next course of action,” says Knox Msebenzi, managing director of Niasa.

“As a principal statement, we have always maintained that transparency, fair trade and following correct procedures are critical foundations necessary to implementing a successful new build programme. Our members — who include all vendors — have signed a declaration to respect the law of South Africa and are committed to a fair, ethical and transparent process.

Msebenzi adds, “It is critical, however, to note that the court has made no determinations and judgment on the argument for nuclear, but rather reviewed procedures followed since the inception of the project. The reality is that nuclear technology is not new to the country; therefore we have a solid foundation from which to base the new proposed build programme.

“The notion of a deal also needs to be addressed head-on. Even in the judgment, there is no reference to any deal, except for an IGA, and many of these are already in place. The idea of ‘strike a deal with the Chinese instead’ is ludicrous. The assertion that there was a deal already, presumably with the Russians, is simply not true. Even the applicants in this case understand this.”

Msebensi also emphasises that nuclear has a place in serving the country’s energy needs.

“It is also not a case of either/or when comparing or reviewing the integrated resource and energy plans of government, but about nuclear being afforded its rightful place within the energy mix and future of the country. This will guarantee base-load power necessary for industrialisation and climate change commitments. Undisputed is that nuclear is the most environmentally-friendly base-load option through facts proven via various international studies. This will enable us to keep in line with reducing carbon emissions and keeping consumer electricity prices low.

“As much as the high court’s judgment has also set aside the IGAs with various countries, as South Africa we do require a platform for exchange of best practice with other Asian, American, French and German counterparts, including the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) nations who have created high technology industries, driven by their nuclear programmes,” stresses Msebenzi.

In terms of the implications of this judgment for Niasa, Msebenzi says that this is a temporary setback or delay. Niasa believes matters relating to nuclear build require rigorous processes and strict adherence to the laws and regulations.

“Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise that we must meet all the criteria,” says Msebenzi.

Wake-up call

“It is much better for us to get the process right from the beginning. We suspect that both government and Eskom will take up this matter and resolve it. In short, we do not regard this as doomsday for nuclear.

“We can choose to lament over this judgment or we can chose to take it as a wake-up call as an indication of what may be coming in the construction phase of the nuclear build. It is vitally important to follow all the processes in this highly-regulated industry worldwide.”

Msebenzi believes Eskom is best placed to answer the question of the implications of this judgment with their function as the procurer. “As an industry we are not involved in the processes of procurement or energy policy determination. At best, we can offer advice based on our collective knowledge of the nuclear industry.

“An appeal being heard covers processes beyond our competence as an industry. Nuclear technology is highly regulated and the world looks at it with a huge magnifying glass. It is best practice to be as transparent as possible. This is true in general and particularly true for nuclear technology.”

The issue is the delay in embarking on a programme that will contribute to reviving the economy, according to Msebenzi. “The legalese around the processes is another matter. Environmental activists may have won this round, but perhaps the people of South Africa have been delayed an opportunity to develop the economy.

“Nuclear is the most reliable and environmentally-friendly technology. It produces the least amount of CO2 in line with international standards and agreements.

The argument for nuclear technology is undisputed and supported by scientific research. Equally so, we respect our democracy and the need for correct process and procedure,” concludes Msebenzi.

Legacy project

Not all 9 600 megawatts of planned nuclear power is anticipated to be built at once but at a scale the country can afford, which means that this is a legacy project for the youth, who will play an integral role in building a sustainable economy. Once the right ticks are in the right boxes, the build programme will take a period of between 15 and 20 years and the power stations are expected to last between 60 to 80 years plus, with Koeberg being a successful example.