JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—While the Russian economy is seemingly in a state of freefall, seeing its rouble plunge even deeper down the bottomless pit, its financial help is anticipated optimistically at the other end of the world: South Africa seems to be serioul counting on Russian federal budget funding to finance an ambitious nuclear build program experts estimate will cost between $40 billion and $100 billion.
The Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom is not only offering to build eight nuclear reactors in the country, but to create an entire nuclear industry in South Africa that could export reactors to neighboring nations. The agreements on the development of nuclear energy Russia has recently signed with Nigeria and Ghana seem to be part of the same general idea.
All of this, though, looks far from realistic at the moment, given that the better part of the continent lacks reliable power lines to handle the transmission of electricity. Still, South Africa and other African nations are rich in deposits of uranium – a commodity whose reserves in Russia are limited.
Russia has earlier already made a proposal to South Africa to build a nuclear fuel production facility. Otherwise, nuclear material would have to be transported across enormous distances on routes lying in vicinity of a number of unstable regions, including areas controlled by Somali pirates. Should the South African nuclear fuel program be realized, however, the issue of additionally reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in South Africa will likely come up for the same reason. As a result, reactor plutonium will start piling up in South Africa, something that is hardly conducive to better security.
The intergovernmental agreement that the Russian Federation and the Republic of South Africa signed in September 2014 is unusual for its degree of elaboration. The document mentions several locations for future nuclear power plants, the reactor technology expected to be used there, and the total combined capacity of the reactors proposed for construction – equivalent to eight reactors of the VVER-1200 type. It also contains a very specific limitation of liability for any damage that may arise from a nuclear accident, and gives Russia veto power to enjoin South Africa from cooperating with any other country on nuclear issues.
Shadows of corruption
The government of South Africa kept a tight lid on the text of the agreement for about six months until its contents were revealed in the media thanks to the efforts of the environmental organizations Ecodefense and Earthlife Africa.
Several weeks ago South African Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson announced the beginning of the nuclear procurement process – in other words, a tender – which is expected to be conclude by the end of the financial year. Officially, it is stated that the company that will land the reactor order has not been selected yet. In corroboration of that statement, the minister presented to the South African parliament texts of agreements signed with France, the United States, China, and South Korea as well as Russia.
Still, an analysis of these documents leaves no doubt as to which country will be the winner: None of the agreements with the exception of that with Russia includes any marginally significant details, and the one on cooperation with the United States was inked as long as 20 years ago – meaning it hardly has anything to do with this ongoing tender.
Based on these facts, environmental activists in South Africa soon intend to file a lawsuit against the government for alleged violation of nuclear procurement rules. There is little doubt that the fundraising campaign to collect enough money for the litigation – 1.5 million South African rand, or roughly $120,000, will be needed – will prove successful. And at the very least, the court case can put the brakes on the nuclear program in South Africa for several years.
Opposition to nuclear initiative gets loud
Meanwhile, public disapproval of South African President Jacob Zuma’s nuclear energy development initiative is getting ever more vocal. Opposition against the program has already been sounded by the influential South African trade union association COSATU, a number of business associations, environmental groups, renowned journalists and experts. Even the government lacks unity on the matter, with the Ministry of Finance saying it cannot give its go-ahead on the program without a clear understanding of what the sources of financing will be. No money has been spoken for by this program in the national budget.
As of today, reports and op-eds in South African media are overwhelmingly and decidedly critical of the proposed nuclear program. Besides the economic and environmental arguments – and Rosatom lends itself easily to criticism even without mentioning Chernobyl, and South African environmentalists have already published a detailed report on Rosatom’s environmental record – with corruption as the most frequently mentioned theme.
Only recently, South Africa was forced to deal with a huge corruption scandal involving an arms deal, and now the public’s attention is pinned to what the press has dubbed the “Nkandla scandal,” which arose out of the allegation that President Zuma used a considerable amount of state funding to finance upgrades on his own home. The opposition has taken the Nkandla matter to court and is demanding the return of at least part of the money. Most observers are convinced that President Zuma’s nuclear project will result in yet another corruption scandal, this time probably the biggest in the country’s history.
The South African government wants the country to have by 2023 eight new nuclear reactors. Actually, Rosatom has never built anywhere at this pace. For instance, the agreement with Turkey, on building a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu, was signed five years ago, but any real construction work is even yet to begin at the site. Pre-construction activities have just started at Akkuyu, and of the $20 billion promised by Russia to fund the construction of four reactors there only five percent has so far been allocated.
Source: Vladimir Slivyak
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