Nuclear Energy in South Africa: Ramaphosa’s mixed messages

By Ellen Davies , Saliem Fakir

Will government continue to pursue nuclear energy despite the exorbitant cost? And if it does, will the procurement process be more open and transparent than it was under the Zuma administration? Whether government will engage with and listen to the concerns of its people, when it comes to the controversial topic of nuclear energy, is yet to be seen.

December 2017 marked the beginning of significant political changes in South Africa. Former President Jacob Zuma was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the African National Congress (ANC). On 14 February 2018, Zuma stepped down as president of the Republic of South Africa (RSA), almost one year short of completing his second and final term. He was replaced by the newly elected president of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa.

This has brought about significant changes in South Africa. However, what this means for Government’s nuclear energy ambitions is not yet clear. While the Zuma administration remained unwaveringly committed to the Nuclear Energy New Build Programme in its full 9.6GW glory, mixed messages about the future of nuclear energy have emerged from President Ramaphosa and his newly appointed Minister of Energy, Jeff Radebe.

Given this uncertainty, as well as the country’s questionable track record with pursuing nuclear energy procurement under the Zuma administration, those opposed to the nuclear new build programme are left in limbo. Will government continue to pursue nuclear energy despite its prohibitively high costs; the lack of energy demand to justify a build on this scale; the fact that we don’t have the money to finance it; and the continued resistance from many constituencies throughout South Africa? If it does, will the procurement process be more open and transparent than it was under the Zuma administration and will government engage with and listen to the concerns of its people?

These are critical questions because the energy choices we make now will have significant impacts not only on our energy security and economic performance today but also in the future.

Furthermore, as we enter into a new period of optimism in South Africa, the need to ensure Energy Democracy, understood in its broadest sense to mean that all South Africans are informed about and have a say in our energy future, is critical.

It is in this spirit that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) undertook two studies to explore the future of nuclear energy in South Africa. The purpose of these studies is two-fold. First, it seeks to understand what we can learn from the decisions made and strategies pursued to push nuclear energy under the Zuma administration. Second, it seeks to highlight the potential points of intervention available to those seeking to oppose nuclear energy deployment, or at the very least ensure accountability in the procurement thereof.

The first study, South Africa’s nuclear new-build programme: Who are the players and what are the potential strategies for pushing the nuclear new-build programme, maps the most vocal constituencies in the nuclear energy debate and their reasons for either opposing or supporting the new build programme. What it reveals is that across the board, irrespective of ideological positions or technology preferences, South Africans are opposed to the nuclear programme. The reasons given by these commentators include, the prohibitively high costs involved, the lack of energy demand to justify the programme, the lack of finance to fund such a programme, the secrecy associated with nuclear procurement and the potential for corruption, among others.

The study also unpacks some of the lessons we can learn from government’s strategy to push the nuclear programme under the previous administration. Importantly, it unpacks the Earthlife Africa and Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) legal challenge, which saw the Western Cape High Court declare Government’s Intergovernmental Agreement with Russia unlawful and what those opposed to nuclear energy can learn from this process. It attempts to understand what, given the High Court decision, are the strategies available to Government if it is to continue to pursue nuclear energy in South Africa.

The second study, South Africa’s nuclear new-build programme: The domestic requirements for nuclear energy procurement and public finance implications, provides insight into the various legislative requirements for large infrastructure builds in South Africa.

What it reveals is that SA has a robust legislative framework in place to ensure that due process is followed in large infrastructure procurement. In particular, Treasury’s various procurement rules impose a number of checks and balances to prevent cost overruns and delays and to ensure transparency and accountability. These are critical to understand, not only in the context of nuclear energy, but for any infrastructure build we might seek to undertake.

One of the biggest lessons we can draw from nuclear procurement under Zuma is the importance of understanding this legislative framework and where the public can intervene to ensure accountability.

The second report also shows unequivocally that SA cannot afford to pursue the nuclear new build programme. Using very conservative cost estimates, it shows not only that the fiscus can neither finance the programme nor provide the guarantees necessary to seek financial support elsewhere.

Given this, and as we move into a new period in SA’s democracy, it is critical we entrench inclusive and accountable decision making from the get go. This requires that we ensure that government engages with and listens to all stakeholders when making important decisions about our energy future.

Going into this new period, we can draw on two fundamental lessons from our past. The first is that everyone has the power to make a difference. Against all odds, Earthlife Africa and SAFCEI, were able to change the course of our energy future. The second is that in order to exercise this power we need to be informed. The energy space is unnecessarily complicated. It is time for those working in this space, to move away from the technical language that excludes participation by most South Africans and start driving Energy Democracy in its truest form.

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Contributors

Ellen Davies

Ellen Davies is the Project Manager of Extractives Industry at the World Wide Fund for Nature. Apart from extractives, her portfolio of work includes nuclear energy and interrogating the relationship between environmental and socio-economic sustainability in South Africa. Ellen has a Bachelor of Social Science, Bachelor of Law and Honours in Economics. She is currently […]

Saliem Fakir

Saliem Fakir is the Head of the Policy & Futures Unit at the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa. The unit’s work is focused on identifying ways to manage a transition to an inclusive and equitable low-carbon economy. In 2007-2008, Saliem was a senior lecturer at the Department of Public Administration and Planning and […]

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