South Africa


From Russia to Mantashe with love: Chernobyl and the culture of climate meltdown

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, left, Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photos: Phill Magakoe / EPA / Sergey Dolzhenko / EPA-EFE / Maurizio Brambatti)

In mid-July 2019, Minister Gwede Mantashe put nuclear back on the table after months of presidential promises that it was unaffordable. A confluence of forces and events, from the climate denialism of Opec to the concerns of the South African coal industry, were discernible in the minister’s energy budget speech. Somewhere behind it all, it seemed, lay the hand of Vladimir Putin. And to explain the fallout, we had the global TV smash-hit series ‘Chernobyl’.

I. Performance

Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.”

As a future-historical artefact, the argument could be made that this is the line of 2019. Spoken by Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) in the final episode of the global hit TV series Chernobyl, it comes at a point in the show when its most candid real-life character — a celebrated scientist — confronts the brute force of state power. Although he has been feted in the West for his honesty, Legasov has just informed the Soviet court of his involvement in a cover-up.

The lie is that the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was caused by operator error; the truth points to a state intent on cutting corners for cheap Cold War victories. But why does Legasov suddenly perform an about-turn to implicate both the KGB and the USSR Central Committee? Why does he suddenly tread, as the judge cautions him, on “dangerous ground”?

Because, as he replies to the judge, “I’ve already trod on dangerous ground. We’re on dangerous ground right now.”

And so to Gwede Mantashe, our nation’s minister of mineral resources and energy, who on 11 July 2019, speaking not from the poisoned environs of an exploded nuclear reactor but from the dry-cleaned carpets of the old assembly building in Cape Town, incurred his own debt to the truth.

It is crucial for South Africa to plan for additional nuclear capacity beyond 2045 as we transition to a diversified cleaner energy future,” said Mantashe. “As we have stated on numerous occasions, the country would acquire nuclear at a price, pace and scale it can afford.”

To any casual observer, the most obvious link with Russia was in the final phrase. During the G20 summit in Japan in late June 2019, this was the exact phrase — “pace and scale it can afford” — that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokeswoman had used when informing the Sunday Times of her boss’s one-on-one with Vladimir Putin, thereby reintroducing the prospect of a nuclear deal to the South African public. But there was, it seemed, a deeper link: one that went beyond Moscow’s decade-long effort to shill its nuclear technology to Pretoria and into the realm of climate breakdown.

Thing was, less than five minutes before appending the “clean energy future” qualifier to nuclear power, Mantashe had doubled down on the country’s commitment to fossil fuels. He had referenced the Petroleum Resources Development Bill and the Gas Amendment Bill, two pieces of mooted legislation that, he said, would “provide policy certainty for the upstream petroleum sector” and “leverage available gas resources” in the Karoo and the offshore Brulpadda field.

Of the three fossil fuels tied to runaway global heating by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Mantashe had now signed off on the remaining two: oil and natural gas. As the new minister of a combined minerals and energy portfolio, he had made the call to split his budget speeches — the day before, on 10 July 2019, he had reaffirmed his commitment to coal.

Early indications are that the [Molteno] coal fields could be utilised as thermal coal for electricity generation,” he’d said, during the mining part of his double-bill.

A programme for carbon capture and storage, to ensure continued use of our coal resources in an environmentally sustainable manner, is underway.”

The climate crisis, Mantashe was suggesting, would be fixed in the end by technology. He was going this route despite the IPCC’s warning in October 2018 that negative emission techniques, all “unproven at large scale” and some that carried significant risks, would only help to limit the destruction if the burning of fossil fuels was cut in half by 2030 and phased out altogether by 2050.

As a policy position, it was a song that Mantashe had properly begun to sing in early June 2019, during his first public address as minister of the combined portfolio. Back then, as Daily Maverick reported, he had tested out his “silly debate” tune on an audience of junior miners — they had responded with enthusiastic applause to his promise that South Africa’s energy future would not be about “killing coal and growing renewables”.

With a few minor tweaks, the minister was now ready to perform for the nation:

As a country, we must avoid the currently polarised debate on energy, pitted as coal versus renewables,” he said, during his budget speech of 11 July. “The debate should be about the effective use of all the energy sources at our disposal, to achieve security of supply.”

And somehow, despite months of Ramaphosa’s assurances that it was unaffordable, nuclear was back in the band — a surprise that threw the spotlight on one person, in particular, a man with his own unique take on the Arctic denuded of its summer ice.

With climate change, better conditions occur in this region for economic purposes,” Vladimir Putin had divulged, before a live TV audience, in March 2017. “Look what will happen: today, the volume of goods delivered via the northern sea route is equal to 1.4 million tonnes. By 2035, it will be 30 million tonnes.”

II. Influence

The very last scene in episode one of Chernobyl is a close-up of a bird that’s fallen from the sky. Like the spectacled fruit bats, also known as flying foxes, that fell from the sky during Australia’s freak heatwave in November 2018, an extreme weather event that killed a third of the bat species in two days, it is a harbinger of calamities to come. Episode two opens with a pair of nuclear physicists at a facility 400 kilometres outside Chernobyl discussing the anomalous uranium content in the ambient air. The equivalences at this point are hard to miss.

Ten minutes into the second episode, which is evocatively titled “Please Remain Calm”, the metaphor is unmistakable.

Mr Legasov, this is no place for alarmist hysteria,” shouts the Soviet deputy prime minister, Boris Shcherbina (an inspired Stellan Skarsgård), at the meeting of the Central Committee where news of the disaster is first discussed. Legasov has not been invited to speak by party leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but as the meeting is wrapping up — on the happy note that the damage has been contained — he interjects by referring to the science.

It’s not alarmist if it’s a fact,” Legasov shouts back.

In June 2019, the same month that Chernobyl was released worldwide, the conflict between power politics and the consensus of climate science escalated to the level of war. At the UN climate talks in Bonn, the oil-producing nations of Saudi Arabia, the United States, Australia and Iran flat-out rejected the above-mentioned IPCC special report, arguing that the 6,000 scientific references of 91 authors from 40 countries needed to be erased from the record.

Six months earlier, at COP24 in Poland, the Kuwaitis and the Russians — alongside the Saudis and the Americans — had done the same thing, albeit in more polite language. But two things happened in early July 2019 that brought everything into stark focus.

The first was the crusade declared by Opec — the organisation of 14 states that accounts for 80% of the world’s oil reserves — against the activist infidels.

Civil society is being misled to believe oil is the cause of climate change,” said Mohamed Barkindo, Opec’s secretary-general, after announcing that the “unscientific” claims of climate activists were “the greatest threat” to his industry.

The second was Putin’s ascension, after a successful showdown with President Donald Trump of the US, to de facto Opec policymaker.

On 2 July 2019, the very same day that Barkindo was mounting his attack on the activists, Putin was rubber-stamping a deal with Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman to extend oil production cuts. The deal effectively meant that Saudi Arabia was now deferring to Russia, a non-Opec member when it came to defending the price of oil.

As for defending the science of climate change, the nations of Latin America, Africa and the small island states — who were already experiencing the worst of the floods, droughts, tropical storms and sea-level rises — were mostly holding the line. A “secret” and “confidential” document, obtained by Daily Maverick in mid-July, revealed that South Africa was hedging its bets.

What Daily Maverick did not reveal, however, was that the 33-member South African delegation that took this document to the climate talks in Bonn included three senior delegates from the mineral resources and energy department. This would be the same department directly responsible for the fact that South Africa is the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and by far the largest in Africa.

In other words, despite the fact that she had sent 12 delegates to Bonn — and acknowledging her hat-tip, in her own budget speech of 12 July, to the youth-inspired language of “climate emergency” — Barbara Creecy, the new environment, forestry and fisheries minister, was outgunned.

And the mining and energy department was, in turn, outgunned by the contingencies of realpolitik. Whatever shape the back-room deals had taken at the G20 or elsewhere, it was clear that Russia’s play for dominance in Africa was having an effect. A Daily Maverick exclusive by Ferial Haffajee and Dossier Centre in May 2019 brought to light a trove of documents that demonstrated Russia’s interest in meddling in the South African national elections, with oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef”, as the chief instigator. The alleged attempted disinformation campaign included suggestions for discrediting the major opposition parties to the ANC, a mostly stillborn attempt that kicked off in February 2019.

Which was incredibly strange, because February 2019 was also the month that an anti-Ramaphosa cabal launched an attack on the Independent Power Producers, asserting that they — not the Gupta-led looters — were the cause of Eskom’s financial woes. The cabal, as Business Day’s Carol Paton pointed out, included “trade unions, the pro-nuclear lobby, discredited former Eskom staff and the Zuma fight-back brigade,” with Zak Madela, the South African business development manager of Russian state nuclear operator Rosatom, “by far the most active and vitriolic in the group”.

If this was an attempt by Russian state actors to sow confusion by playing both sides of the fence, it wouldn’t be the first time a global power had done such a thing in Africa. Either way, following Mantashe’s energy budget speech of 11 July, the local activists who in 2017 had blocked former president Jacob Zuma’s $76 billion secret deal with Putin — a deal unprecedented in scope and cost that assigned all liability for nuclear accidents to South Africa — were back on full alert.

The Russians and the Chinese, with all their dirty energy projects, are compromising our action around climate change,” Makoma Lekalakala, executive director of Earthlife Africa, told Daily Maverick. Lekalakala, who had won the prestigious Goldman Prize for her role in the anti-nuclear High Court victory, was adamant that the superpowers in the BRICS bloc were making it impossible for South African climate negotiators to act in the best interests of the country.

Our negotiators have good legislation and good intent,” she said, “but the problem arises when it comes to political decision-making.”

Pooven Moodley, current executive director of indigenous rights group Natural Justice and former coordinator of the Campaign for a Just Energy Future, which was specifically set up to halt the nuclear deal, was even more blunt.

The proposed nuclear deal was a big part of the State Capture project,” he reminded Daily Maverick. “It was clear even after Zuma was forced out that other individuals linked to the project were still trying to push it. It is shocking, not surprising and devastating all at the same time that South Africa chooses to go backwards by justifying old technology while other countries are fast-tracking investments in renewables and moving away from nuclear and coal.”

III. Consequence

Now you look like the minister of coal.”

In episode three of Chernobyl, these are the words that greet the ranking Soviet apparatchik for coal after his light-blue suit has been smeared by the hands of a hundred miners. The coal miners, who are famous in Soviet Russia for speaking the truth — because, as Comrade Shcherbina says, they can “see in the dark” — have consented to the minister’s request to help out with the operation. They will excavate a space beneath the melting nuclear core and install a liquid nitrogen heat exchanger, which will stop the reactor fuel from seeping into the ground and poisoning farmlands and water sources all the way from Kyiv to the Black Sea.

It goes without saying that the Soviet minister does not join the miners in sacrificing himself so that countless lives may be spared — the dramatisation of this truth, like most if not all of the Chernobyl series, is based on historical fact.

Analogously, on Wednesday 24 July 2019, despite (or because of) the International Energy Agency’s recent finding that coal combustion is “the single largest source of global temperature increase,” the coal bosses in South Africa hosted a get-together to discuss how they might safeguard their livelihoods “for decades to come”.

Called “Coal Industry Day”, the panellists included the chief executives of various mining houses, analysts from investment banks and auditing firms, the director of the Fossil Fuel Foundation, a mining sector specialist from the Public Investment Corporation and the head of primary energy at Eskom.

The venue was the Johannesburg Country Club — the very same ballroom in which Gwede Mantashe had promised the junior mining sector, back in early June, that he wasn’t buying the “silly debate” between renewables and coal. What’s more, the conference organisers were the very same people who’d invited the minister to give that particular talk.

Nowhere in the day’s agenda was there any mention of the phrase “just transition” — a concept that had likewise been absent from Mantashe’s energy budget speech of 11 July. Clearly, as far as the coal mining industry was concerned, there was no need for a serious discussion about the transition of its workers into the renewables sector because the South African government, despite what President Ramaphosa had said in his State of the Nation address, was at best lukewarm about the project. Again, the minister’s only mention of “clean energy” in his budget speech had been in direct relation to nuclear.

What the minister may not have been aware of was a paper in Nature that had drawn a correlation between the wildfires in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) in April and August of 2015 and the spread of radioactive particles across large swathes of Eastern Europe. The paper had stated that an analysis of “future climate” using the IPCC’s models showed that “the risk of fire in the CEZ is expected to increase further as a result of drought…”

Neither may the minister have been aware that the risk posed to nuclear energy facilities by climate collapse, which was reaching catastrophic proportions due to the burning of fossil fuels, was not confined to wildfires. Sea-level rise, shoreline erosion, coastal storms, floods and heatwaves — all of these phenomena, according to a paper published in Energy Policy as far back as 2011, had been flagged by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and France’s nuclear regulatory agency as potential threats.

Then there was the problem of maintenance and non-compliance, which had been the hidden cause behind the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown and had since become an endemic concern worldwide. In the wake of the Fukushima Dai-ichi crisis in Japan, a sweeping four-part Associated Press investigation exposed the “cosy relationship” between the industry and the regulator in the US, a culture of corner-cutting that had taken hold due to the billions of dollars at stake.

For challenging the stranglehold of the nuclear power industry over Congress, Gregory Jackzo, who was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission between 2009 and 2012, lost his career. In May 2019, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, Jackzo — an atomic physicist who once believed nuclear technology would save the planet — wrote the following:

This tech is no longer a viable strategy for dealing with climate change, nor is it a competitive source of power. It is hazardous, expensive and unreliable, and abandoning it wouldn’t bring on climate doom.”

But for Mantashe and the South African government, nuclear was once again the answer. Remarkably, in the week immediately following Mantashe’s energy budget speech, two nuclear plants were taken down in Russia due to “unspecified” malfunctions.

And on 22 July 2019, four days after the second plant was shut, Karen Breytenbach, the head of South Africa’s Independent Power Producer office — who’d overseen the investment of R209 billion in 112 renewable energy projects with “zero corruption” — was asked by the Department of Energy and the Development Bank of South Africa to vacate her post.

There was no reason,” she told Fin24. “They wanted someone else.”

To believe that the reason had nothing to do with the threat posed by renewables to the vested interests would also be to believe that fossil fuels and nuclear, as a geopolitical power play, weren’t coupled on the tote.

Which brings us back to Chernobyl and the scene that’s one of the most difficult to watch in the entire series, perhaps because it deals with forms of life that don’t know how to lie. In episode four, when three soldiers go into the abandoned villages to shoot the dogs, one of them freezes. As the soldiers are discussing the event over a bottle of vodka, the camera pans to a giant banner — a piece of Soviet propaganda — draped across the building behind them. “The Happiness of All Mankind,” it says.

On 20 September this year, millions of human beings in thousands of cities and towns across the planet will leave their workplaces and schools to begin a week of protests for exactly that. They will call for an end to the age of fossil fuels, in what may very well turn out to be the largest coordinated mass action event of all time.

In South Africa, September is also the month that the Integrated Resource Plan, which is the document that casts the energy mix in stone, goes to Cabinet for approval.

We have a pretty good idea by now what the IRP will look like — it will in all likelihood, to borrow from the dramatised words of Valery Legasov, incur a debt to the truth. But we also know, if we’ve watched Chernobyl through to the end, that there was a follow-up line to this archetypal maxim for 2019:

Sooner or later, that debt is paid.” DM


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