If nuclear power is reasonable, affordable and desirable, why is the government keeping it secret? Why has a new board – which illegally excludes representatives from civil society, business and labour – been appointed by a secret panel for the national nuclear regulator? Join the dots.

Government is going ahead with plans for new nuclear power facilities, even though no such build is in the energy plan to 2030. This raises concerns about both the apparent enthusiasm for new nuclear build and the secrecy surrounding it.

In the space of one day in August, mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe handed over his decision (determination) to the National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) for its consideration and concurrence for nuclear procurement, and also appointed a new board for the national nuclear regulator which illegally excludes representatives from civil society, business and labour. It was appointed by a secret panel.

The determination was issued by the minister before its own process of evaluating nuclear options has closed.


Join the dots here.

These activities show the department of mineral resources and energy (DMRE) is not interested in due process, transparency or the best energy solution for South Africa.

The department seems to be in an unseemly rush to get nuclear back on the table – and transparency is being dropped along the way.

We want an unequivocal assurance from the government that a nuclear build programme is not being developed by stealth.

We want civil society representatives on the national nuclear regulator board.

We want transparency and ethical decision-making to ensure that South Africa is never compromised by another secret nuclear deal.

We also want electricity to become more affordable and accessible.

New nuclear power is neither affordable nor appropriate. The potential for renewables has not been sufficiently exploited in South Africa. The IRP 2019 still retains a restriction on the amount of renewable generation that can be built.

We are acutely mindful of the danger that such enormous and prohibitively expensive projects as a new nuclear build may be promoted by those who see primarily the potential for unlimited looting.

We also note that South Africa has repeatedly failed to deliver large-scale infrastructure on time and on budget, but the government appears to have done little to address this serious problem.

Examples here include Medupi and Kusile, both billions of rand over budget, years late, with inadequate environmental safeguards and with design or build flaws severe enough to hamper operations.

Over the last few months there have been activities which point to an assumption by the DMRE that a nuclear build will happen, and will start within the next few years, regardless of what South Africa’s energy plan allows.

The use of the incorrect version of IRP 2019 – the version which authorises a nuclear build instead of the version which authorises preparation – adds to these concerns.

These are some of the “dots” that should be of major concern:

  •  The minister has been remarkably tardy at getting the process of procuring emergency generation power under way. Eskom’s struggle to keep the lights on is now legendary, so the need for emergency power – the “risk mitigation” generation – has long been discussed. Although IRP 2019 was finally gazetted in October 2019, it took another four months for the minister to issue the draft determination for 2,000MW of short-term risk mitigation capacity to be online by December 2021. A request for proposals (RFP) was finally issued in August 2020, with a deadline of late December. If bidders are expected to keep to that December 2021 delivery deadline, it means the DMRE will have given itself longer to get the paperwork in order than it gives bidders to build the generation plants;
  • In June 2020, the minister issued a request for information (RFI) for 2,500MW of nuclear build, with a deadline for submissions of 25 September 2020. While it was emphasised that this is not the procurement itself, but rather an assessment of available technologies, it brings procurement a step closer. The RFI also states that the DMRE “intends to launch a nuclear new build power procurement programme in line with the approved 2019 integrated resource plan to ensure security of supply of energy with affordable, reliable and baseload nuclear power”. This is not in fact in the correct IRP 2019, but is in an earlier, incorrect version; the correct version says the decision is to commence “preparations” for nuclear build;
  • In July 2020, in the Supplementary Budget, the DMRE cut R1.5-billion from the integrated national electrification programme grants for electrification of homes but retained funding for the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (Necsa), which has a dismal record of financial accountability, including audit disclaimers in 2017/18 and 2018/19;
  • On 6 August 2020, the minister is believed to have quietly issued a draft determination for 2,500MW of nuclear power to Nersa to consider and approve. This would open the door to procurement. Nersa must run a public consultation process before approving this, but the details and timeline of this process have yet to be announced;
  • Also on 6 August 2020, the minister appointed a new board of directors for the national nuclear regulator. The directors are appointed for a term of three years; the previous board was appointed in December 2016, so the term of office for those directors expired in December 2019. Who ran the board until the new one was appointed? Furthermore, the National Nuclear Regulator Act states that the board must include a representative from organised labour, one from organised business and one representing communities which may be affected by nuclear activities. None of these representatives was appointed to the new board. When Outa asked the DMRE for an explanation, we were told that the representatives were still being identified – by a panel the DMRE would not identify – and that consultation was limited to Nedlac and Sanco. The restriction of the “consultation” on the civil society representative to a single civil society organisation with a limited footprint and no track record in nuclear energy matters is inadequate. Broader civil society should have a say over who that representative is. Instead, this process seems designed to pay lip service to the requirement for consultation;
  • On 25 September 2020, the minister gazetted the long-awaited determination for renewable energy generation;
  • Also on 25 September, the minister gazetted the fees for nuclear authorisations for 2020/21, including a R19-million fee for the vacant Thyspunt nuclear installation site. The Duynefontein site, which is part of the Koeberg site, was not mentioned, but the fee for Koeberg totals R116-million, so may include this;
  • In late September, there were two minor earth tremors off Cape Town. Two weeks later, the Council for Geoscience issued a tender for a service provider to lead a probabilistic seismic hazard analysis of the Duynefontein nuclear site and perform seismic hazard calculations. On 17 November, another tremor occurred;
  • On 9 October, the minister referred to the wrong IRP when answering a question in Parliament on energy policy, incorrectly stating that the policy is to “immediately commence a small-scale nuclear build programme to the extent of 2,500MW by 2030”. This is the document which was incorrectly published as IRP 2019, and replaced the same day. The correct version refers to the decision to commence “preparations” for a nuclear build programme;
  • On 16 October, the US International Development Finance Corporation announced it had signed a letter of intent to help US-based NuScale Power develop 2,500MW of nuclear energy in South Africa; and
  •  On 13 November 2020, the DMRE advertised a tender for a service provider “to develop a discussion paper on nuclear power and non-power research, development and innovation”. This seems to be aimed at replacing the 2008 nuclear policy, which the DMRE still uses. The contractor will have just three months to research policies, strategies and plans of six nuclear vendor countries and at least eight countries with nuclear energy programmes.

Nuclear power is an industry that needs careful, ethical and expert oversight.

Our government has previously demonstrated a willingness to enter into secret deals on nuclear power.

The former Cabinet minister who signed that deal remains in a senior position in Parliament.

The chairperson of the energy committee which approved that deal is now in Cabinet.

In view of that revolving-door history and recent events, red lights are flashing and it would be foolish if we failed to be concerned over government intentions. DM