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Our nuclear obsession is a dangerous distraction from energy for all South Africans

Our nuclear legacy is a dangerous distraction from energy for all South Africans

Nuclear power is back on the government’s agenda. Who will stop this dangerous distraction? We don’t need more studies. We don’t need to pay any more consultants. Where are the determinations for 513MW storage, for 2,000MW solar PV and for 4,800MW of wind, all supposed to be up and running by 2023?

Nuclear energy which will deliver nothing in the short term, if ever, will effectively take R1.5-billion away from service delivery for poor households.

This is a sobering indication of government priorities while faced with the economic and social fallout from Covid-19, and an indication of the continued strength of those seeking illicit profits from huge state contracts.

The spending is outlined in the Supplementary Budget tabled by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni on 24 June 2020.

The adjusted budget for the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) cuts R1.5-billion from the Integrated National Electrification Programme grants to Eskom and municipalities. But the same department maintains its transfer of nearly R1-billion to the Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), the nuclear industry SOE which has consistently failed to achieve a clean audit report in the past five years and submitted its last two financial reports to Parliament months late.

Access to electricity is a developmental priority for the country. Continuing to transfer money to a financially compromised institution while halting the electrification by government of at least 50,000 households is morally reprehensible and points to a serious failure by the DMRE to act in the public interest. To continue to pursue a nuclear agenda while ignoring vulnerable households is reprehensible at any time, but to do so within the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic points to a minister who is heartless.

South Africa has been pursuing nuclear mirages for decades, moving from nuclear armaments in the apartheid era to increasingly expensive nuclear power options in the democratic era. Continuing to pursue nuclear dreams in a year of the greatest economic collapse in a century and the huge need for additional financial resources necessitated by Covid-19 is not only socially irresponsible, but also irrational and financially irresponsible.

The DMRE determination to pursue nuclear build plans – outside of stated government policy on energy and at the expense of more essential spending – is illustrated in the Supplementary Budget.

This builds on unaffordable – and often secretive – spending and activities over decades.

Here’s a reminder of this sad history.

Nuclear mirage Season 1:

In the 1990s the small nuclear reactor (PBMR) project appeared. Civil society (Earthlife Africa) resorted to the courts and overturned the flawed environmental impact assessment. An international review panel was set up, to advise government on the PBMR including its economic feasibility, but its findings were never made public. Where is that report and why was it not made public?

In 2010, it seemed that government had had enough and pulled the plug on PBMR. Although there had been initial appetite by other investors, by the time the project was halted, these international investors had drifted away, leaving the government paying R10-billion (about R20-billion in today’s money) of public money for this distraction.

Nuclear mirage Season 2:

In 2013, the then Minister of Energy, Ben Martins, signed a decision to procure nuclear power, but this was kept secret. A year later the next minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with Russia. In a ruthless disregard for the rule of law, the Department of Energy (now DMRE) under successive ministers attempted to bludgeon the nuclear deal through.

The Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture has exhumed extensive evidence of corruption under former President Jacob Zuma, including a top-down push to lock in a commercial nuclear new-build deal with Russia’s Rosatom. However, in 2017, Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute blocked this deal when they won their court case against the government, with the high court finding that the proposed nuclear deal was unlawful and setting it aside. The deal would potentially have cost South Africa R1-trillion, and yet, with just half the annual interest for that loan (calculated before we hit junk status), government could have built 1,500 schools and electrified 1.6 million households.

Undaunted, the next Minister of Energy, David Mahlobo (formerly state security minister) was believed to be continuing the nuclear deal and had to be brought back to court later in the same year to commit under oath to abide by the court ruling, which included the need for public participation.

In October 2019, the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2029) was finally published, spelling out the energy mix until 2030. This contains no new nuclear build before 2030, only a Koeberg upgrade, and it was hoped that sanity would prevail. In the preparation for the last nuclear deal in 2016, R230-million was paid to consultants and, despite an Auditor-General finding that many such contracts were irregular (revealed to be R162-million), and the 2017 court case victory, certain of these contracts continued to be paid as revealed in 2019. We have seen no one held accountable and the same officials still sit in the renamed DMRE.

Nuclear mirage Season 3:

As with many soap operas and movie series, later episodes often deteriorate as the series continues. Round three of the nuclear mirage saga has sunk to reprehensible depths.

In 2020/21, the now merged DMRE, under Minister Gwede Mantashe, has resolved to tread the well-worn nuclear path again. With apparent amnesia, DMRE launched a request for information (RFI) on a nuclear power build, as if they have no information at all. What has happened to the varied reports and studies that have been produced over the past 20 years? Where are the consultant reports (16 studies that cost R230-million) that were produced in 2017? Do they exist? This was South Africans taxpayers’ money.

Necsa has been seen to be a crucial component of the new-build strategy. The DMRE oversees this SOE and funnels much of the departmental budget for nuclear through to Necsa.

In 2019 Necsa enjoyed a 28% increase on its 2018 allocation, whereas other programmes within the department managed only single-digit increases in most cases. This increase to Necsa’s budget this year despite its poor record of accountability fails to show sound financial logic. How can this be justified if we are trying to address maladministration and instil good governance?

This points to a real desperation to keep alive the nuclear mirage.

Within the planned targets of the DMRE for 2020/21, there is a timeline to sign a new nuclear deal by 2024. Coincidentally, this is the same deadline which the DMRE has given itself for tackling corruption – four more years before it plans to reduce corruption inside the department not completely, but by 95%.

Who will stop this dangerous distraction? We don’t need more studies. We don’t need to pay any more consultants. What we need to do is act and implement IRP 2019 which means rolling out the capacity as outlined that is needed before 2030. So where are the determinations for 513MW storage, for 2,000MW solar PV and for 4,800MW of wind, all supposed to be up and running by 2023?

We need the officials, politicians and private-sector businesses complicit in nuclear maladministration to face the full weight of the law, including paying back the money as well as facing jail. Not only must justice be done, but it must be seen to be done.

The Fifth Parliament let South Africa down and seemingly fell asleep, complicit in the unlawful nuclear deal. How will the nuclear mirage saga end? Will the Sixth Parliament remain a toothless watchdog, or will it play its role in ridding us of this dangerous nuclear distraction? DM

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