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Editorial: Ramaphosa’s nuclear question

For the past 14 years, South Africa has been a country stuck with an electricity deficit that was foreseen a decade before the lights started flickering as heavy rains in our Mpumalanga coalfields caused some of the 12 power stations to lose their fuel source in December 2007. 

Ironically, that was the month the ANC would oust Thabo Mbeki — whose administration had fumbled the ball in planning electricity expansion — as its president. 

His successor in Jacob Zuma would go on to oversee a disastrous build of two coal-fired power stations in Medupi and Kusile and in the final years of his presidency; it’s still not quite complete and feeds into our load-shedding crisis that continues to this day. 

Apart from the corruption and wastage to the tune of hundreds of billions of rand that the project would unleash, the former president would launch an all-out assault on the treasury to ensure a trillion-rand nuclear build with his preferred bidder, the Russian-owned Rosatom. 

Given that our economy has failed to breach the 2% growth mark since 2013, notwithstanding this year’s rebound from 2020’s catastrophic collapse as a result of Covid-19, we certainly dodged an expensive bill that would now be proving debilitating. Our fiscal state is precarious at best and, unfortunately, sitting with a sub-investment grade or “junk”, which means our borrowing costs are punitive. 

That is the tale of the past decade, or rather 20 years, since the issue of electricity and the need for expansion and to shift away from coal dependence has been on the table. Although more renewable energy has been introduced, we still face the question of just how we ensure an energy secure future and avoid falling into a situation like that of the biggest economy on the continent, Nigeria. We have about 4 600MW of installed renewable power, which is not always available because of reliance on wind blowing or sun shining.

Without a secure energy grid, we won’t be able to attract the sort of investment that would begin to eat into our structurally high unemployment crisis. Statistics South Africa releases the second-quarter jobless data next Tuesday, a timely reminder of the depth of the crisis.

At this point, we can’t fathom extending the life of old and ageing coal-fired power stations that currently power the grid; the build of Medupi and Kusile must be the last. World trade is set to become more punitive for countries such as South Africa, with our high emissions because of coal. 

What energy mix will make up for the loss of that coal power over the next decade or two? Will renewables alone fill the gap, or in a combination with our only existing nuclear power plant, together with gas? Or is a nuclear build in the investment-starved Eastern Cape, the only option to ensure a secure power grid? 

In this week’s Mail & Guardian, we ask that question. It’s a political question as much as anything: Does President Cyril Ramaphosa have the answer his predecessors quite clearly didn’t?

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