Not entirely omniscient
22 November 2017 13:06 (South Africa)
South Africa

Op-Ed: Tracing SA’s Nuclear Leviathan – a call to action

  • LAUREN HERMANUS & BRIAN KAMANZI
    LAUREN HERMANUS & BRIAN KAMANZI
  • South Africa
Photo: A general view of the Koeberg nuclear power station on the West Coast outside Cape Town, South Africa, 18 February 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

Among the most concerning issues burning beneath the current chaos is a controversial nuclear expansion and public procurement programme that, if implemented, will be one of the largest tenders ever issued in South African history. By LAUREN HERMANUS and BRIAN KAMANZI.

In the wake of the recent Cabinet reshuffle issued by President Jacob Zuma, a public furore has erupted and has resulted in a number of high level resignations within Cabinet itself. Allegations of “state capture” lie at the heart of the critique issued by a number of opposition parties, civil society organisations and ordinary South Africans. This is a complex moment in which our collective frustration has laid bare the divisions and contradictions of South Africa’s post-apartheid democratic dispensation.

Zuma’s presidency has seen the continued hegemony of enterprises rooted in South Africa’s colonial era, in tandem with the predatory influence of the Gupta family and its corporations over state institutions and resources. This influence has specific links to high-ranking members of the political elite, most concerning the President himself, and has brought bare the myths, deep divisions and paradoxes that shape our social reality.

The matter of what unites South Africans, with all its unanswered underlying questions, remains critical, as does the vexing political problem of determining what social contract will inform our development into the future. But it should not distract us from the urgency of responding to immediate threats to the viability of a state that has the capacity to function and deliver services, especially in the interests of the most marginalised in society.

Among the most concerning issues burning beneath this chaos is a controversial nuclear expansion and public procurement programme that if implemented will be one of the largest tenders ever issued in South African history. It weighs in speculatively in the region of R1-trillion.

It is of paramount importance that certain facts are separated out from ideologically shaped narratives for and against the deal. These facts turn on the need for, affordability of, and process to procure nuclear power plants, all of which point to the critical need to open up space for meaningful debate and interrogation before the programme moves even an inch further.

In 2013, the Department of Energy published an update to the IRP which saw projections for energy demand sharply decrease, following a period of lacklustre growth and changes in electricity consumption in response to Eskom’s steep prices increases. This decrease led to two notable outcomes in the 2013 IRP update. First, the 2010 investment strategy calling for 9,600MW of nuclear generation capacity was revised down, and second, it was determined that a decision on whether or not to invest in nuclear at all should be delayed. And yet, in this same year, recently axed Minister of Energy Joemat-Pettersson was instructed to design a nuclear programme, which in 2014 was taken into talks with representatives of Russian nuclear interests.

By 2014, media reports began to allege that rent-seeking and patronage were shaping the nuclear agenda. In particular, the issue of South Africa’s geopolitical alliances with China and Russia were brought to the fore, as reports were published claiming that Zuma had made a deal at a BRICS meeting in held in Brazil to procure 9,600MW of nuclear energy from Russia’s state-owned nuclear consortium, Rosatom, exclusively. The existence of a nuclear procurement programme was confirmed in a joint statement by the DoE and Rosatom, without the former explaining the deviation from official national policy.

The nuclear programme drew criticism early on, on technical and political grounds. Rather than impede its progress, however, this criticism appears to have driven the deal out of reach of public interrogation. Then Minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene, was fired on 9 December 2015, just hours after Cabinet approved the nuclear procurement programme that Nene had suggested was unaffordable.

As 2015 drew to a close, on December 21, Joemat-Pettersson issued a ministerial determination for 9,600MW of nuclear power, based on the 2010 IRP strategy, then five years out of date. In answer to renewed concern, Nene’s successor, Pravin Gordhan, echoed his reservations and assured the nation in his Budget Speech of 2016 that no deal would be approved that threatened the South African economy.

In March of that year, it was alleged that in order to justify the ministerial determination, Joemat-Pettersson had deliberately disregarded legal advice that a nuclear procurement plan of the intended scale would require parliamentary review and public participation, under Section 231.2 of the Constitution. Documents to support these claims were brought before the Cape High Court in a challenge by EarthLife Africa and Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute.

Over this time, Joemat-Pettersson failed to make any substantive case for nuclear procurement, for the scale of the programme, or for the closed procurement process limited to Russian vendors. In fact, the admission of closure is not evident in the official determinations of 2015 or 2016. No comparative costing or evaluation documents have been shared with the public. She was joined in fervent support by ex-Eskom CE Brian Molefe, who while insisting on the affordability of the deal over time, did not make public an investment case to support this claim. Molefe resigned from his post following a tearful interrogation questioning his preferential treatment of Gupta-owned coal companies. At this point it is useful to note this well-known family through Oakbay also own Shiva Uranium Mine, listed on the JSE in 2014, which the company claims as the largest uranium deposit in South Africa and fifth largest in the world.

Later in 2016, Zuma’s Cabinet approved a long-awaited IRP update, which, with no explanation, seemed to have disregarded the revisions of 2013. It was released with the IEP for public comment in November, missing some critical appendices to which the document referred and which made certain modelling assumptions plain and open to challenge. Following the release of these documents, before the public had had their chance to comment, on 14 December 2016 a new determination for the “fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective” procurement of nuclear infrastructure, switched the procurement agent from the DoE to Eskom.

This new determination resulted in the postponement of the High Court case, with the minister ordered to pay punitive costs, as the document, despite being signed on 4 December, was only shared with the court and applicants moments before proceedings commenced. The case was heard on 22 February, but judgment has been reserved to date.

Brian Molefe has since transitioned to a role in government. In his stead, Matshela Koko, who was reported in 2016 as saying that Eskom would be reviewing several nuclear proposals without being committed to nuclear as such, has taken up Molefe’s pro-nuclear position. The emphasis on a manageable pace and scale for nuclear has not been fully explained or evidenced. And while much has been made of opportunities to reduce lead times and costs, it should be noted that the only energy infrastructure of a comparable scale, Medupi (and Kusile), has run behind schedule and cost overruns are in excess of R100-billion, compared with 2007 estimations. Factors other than technology choice such as logistics and labour relations are among the causes for this deviation.

Gordhan, like Nene before him, found himself on the wrong side of the nuclear deal and the President. Since his firing, his replacement Minister Malusi Gigaba took only hours to proclaim that the deal is on, at this yet to be determined manageable pace and scale. There is still no real case, no data, no financial projections, no concrete terms that can be interrogated in Parliament or by the public and we therefore have growing chorus of dissenting voices demanding access and the immediate public release of all information relating to the IRP specifically and the nuclear plant at large.

In the wake of the FeesMustFall ruptures, which were partly over under-spending on higher education, thus far there appears little evidence of any new specific state-led large-scale education programmes or investments to expand and train scientists, technicians and engineers that could justify long-term investment in expanding the use of nuclear power in the country. What has been seen, however, are advertisements for a handful of bursaries and funding opportunities offered by none other than the Russian state company Rosatom.

Increasing rhetoric from the President’s last two State of the Nation addresses and public speeches in recent months have placed emphasis on the role of “radical economic transformation” and a renewed interest in amending the Constitution, allegedly to clear the pathways to resolve historical land dispossession. While opinions may vary around the sincerity of the passionate pronouncements for change, what has clearly been achieved so far is the setting up of a dangerous dualism that positions one as either Pro-Zuma or Pro-White Monopoly Capital, leaving little room for honest analysis that might suggest the two are not only deeply entwined but ultimately co-dependent.

The danger presented by this farcical dualism promotes an “all or nothing approach” that implicitly permits lower institution level corruption, in the hope that Zuma’s posturing to tackle the more fundamental contradictions of the South African economy pay off. This approach potentially stands to corrode the very institutions required to deliver some of the most basic redistributive functions of the state, such as social welfare grants, school feeding schemes among others.

In this fog of confusion, it may prove tempting for some to direct all their anger and frustration at the President; however, it is precisely in these clouded moments that we must resist the easy impulses for a reductive focus only on the individual. Rather, we should debate pathways to implicate the systemic problems at work, as well as holding individuals accountable for their actions. It is equally important to support those within state institutions who work hard to improve democratic control in an environment where malfeasance and chronic declines in social spending have become the norm. The long-lasting impact of the potential nuclear deal will remain with us for generations. We owe it to ourselves to do everything we can to prevent it and stem the flow and efficacy of strategies that induce crisis, confusion and conflict, in order to ease the way for blatant forms of corruption and collusion. DM

Photo: A general view of the Koeberg nuclear power station on the West Coast outside Cape Town, South Africa, 18 February 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

  • LAUREN HERMANUS & BRIAN KAMANZI
    LAUREN HERMANUS & BRIAN KAMANZI
  • South Africa

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