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The three reasons why the ANC is stuck on nuclear power

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The three reasons why the ANC is stuck on nuclear power

By Tim Cohen
24 Apr 2022 8

Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

Last week, a group of Daily Maverick reporters went to have a cup of tea with Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, and they had a discussion about the topics of the day.

Mantashe is chatty and likable and is, after all, used to trading barbs with the press. My guess is his views represent more or less the centre of the ANC’s left-leaning, statist ideology. He is also a party patriot, and isn’t given to public opposition to the Radical Economic Transformation faction, although I suspect he is not part of it himself.    

In any event, Business Maverick contributor Ed Stoddard threw a question to him about nuclear power, and got a surprising response. Mantashe was enthusiastic, indicating the government was still intending to go ahead with the nuclear build process. Just to be clear, we are talking about a build programme that is likely to cost somewhere in the region of R1-trillion.

Let’s now move to the other side of the world briefly. Germany recently closed down three of its six nuclear power plants, and is on track to close the remaining three next year. This decision was, of course, taken before the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which is likely to disrupt Germany’s energy supply.

In this context, it seems like a fair question to ask whether Germany should delay the closure and reopen the mothballed plants. According to news reports, German MP Marc Bernhard, who represents the right-wing Alternative for Germany, pointed out that the three existing plants, and reopening the other three, could offset about 30% of the gas Germany buys from Russia.

The Financial Times took a closer look, and discovered the problem is multifold.

Any decision to prolong the lives of the plants would require a new risk assessment. There are no fresh uranium fuel rods that would allow them to continue operating beyond year-end, and new fuel assemblies would take 12 to 15 months to produce. And guess who is the second-biggest uranium supplier to EU nuclear plants? Russia.

Plus, the last time the final three nuclear plants underwent a safety inspection was in 2009, so a new one would have to be carried out, which might trigger demands for “massive investments” in safety technology.

But the existing three nuclear plants produce only 4.3GW of power. Germany has a bunch of individual wind farms on the drawing board that have more than 4.3GW capacity. In short, the economics of power production have changed, reducing the attractiveness of nuclear and increasing the attractiveness of wind and solar, even if you entirely dispense with the ecological issue.

So back now to the original question. Why is the ANC so desperate to build a nuclear plant? I think the continued desire for a nuclear plant is actually quite simple.

First, the ANC loves big acquisitions from foreign governments, because it can charge rent from the investor, some of which invariably finds its way back into party coffers.

Of course, the party’s huge faction of tenderpreneurs are also lobbying for these kinds of mega-build projects. It’s just so significant to me that both Transnet and Eskom have asked to be freed from aspects of the Public Finance Management Act.

Second, the party is under all kinds of pressure from load shedding. Government has to be seen to be “doing something”, and the convenient answer is “nuclear”. Everyone knows it will take ages to actually do it, so it’s like kicking for touch. 

And there is a third reason: for much of the existing ANC leadership who are getting a bit long in the tooth, nuclear power was the solution back in the day. There is a kind of Soviet-era quasi-scientific triumphalism about nuclear power.

Yet, as the German example demonstrates, the economics of nuclear power have moved on. And it is depressing that so few people in government have the financial wherewithal to understand this. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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All Comments 8

  • Clearly it was a complete waste of time for Gwede Mantashe to do an MBA. He doesn’t realise that even the Russians have moved on from the Stalinist era.

  • The economics of (nuclear) power have moved on, indeed. UCT ESRG showed that in a submission to NERSA during 2021 (and so did the CSIR Energy Centre).

    • not so sure – the Breakthrough Institute contends:
      “Our analysis considers various scenarios of natural gas prices, NuScale construction costs and timelines, and discount rates to assess the potential for public and private funding. We estimate that, if built on time and on budget, NuScale would be cost-competitive with natural gas at a discount rate less than 5%. If advanced nuclear is given a production tax credit similar to that available for renewables, this would increase to 8.5% and represent a relatively attractive investment for private capital.”

  • It was a massive mistake for Germany to ditch nuclear power as they are now finding out. Nuclear is far more expensive than renewables but it does provide reliable base load without burning coal and gas and its generated in-country therefore reducing political risk. Nuclear is safe. Ive been working with radiation experts internationally on responses to Ukraine risks and 2nd and 3rd gen nuclear is safe. The issue is massive upfront cost and long lead times to supply. The 2nd issue for SA is corruption esp if using Russian tech – a massive long term risk and not worth it. There may still be a good argument for additional French reactors alongside the existing 2 at Koeberg. In my mind this should have been done 15 years ago and we would be very relieved now! A totally new site in SA seems far too expensive unless the international community massively discounts it by paying out for the reduced carbon footprint. By the time it comes online there will probably be better baseline options from renewables.

    • would you rather have a small modular reactor at the same price as gas or rely on gas from Mozambique for baseload – gas from a region thats currently fighting an insurgency!

  • A wily old hand told me once that when he is presented with a project plan he automatically multiplies the cost and the timeline by Pi. So, R3,14159tn and delivery date around 2040. Should keep the lights on.

  • “[t]he existing three nuclear plants produce only 4.3GW of power. Germany has a bunch of individual wind farms on the drawing board that have more than 4.3GW capacity”
    You are comparing apples with bananas, Tim. Nuclear 4.3 GW at 90%+ availability factor versus 4.3 GW wind at a 35% capacity factor.

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