A visitor observes electricity pylons beside cooling towers at the Novovoronezh NPP-2 nuclear power station, operated by OAO Rosenergoatom, a unit of Rosatom Corp., in Novovoronezh, Russia, on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to help Egypt develop a nuclear-power industry after signing an accord with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to build a plant for electricity generation. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Johannesburg - Leading bidders in South Africa’s long-awaited nuclear programme, Areva of France and Rosatom of Russia, were in the dark about the cost of the project, their representatives said yesterday.

Areva managing director Yves Guenon and Rosatom regional vice-president Viktor Polikarpov told an energy conference in Johannesburg that, like most people in the country, they did not know the cost of the programme. Previous estimates have put the cost of the project as high as R1 trillion, making it the largest single procurement programme.

Read: Nuclear deal gets the go-ahead

While the South African government has given all the signs that it is steaming ahead with the nuclear programme, it has played its cards close to its chest on the overall cost.

This has fuelled speculation that the finer details of the programme, that will add 9 600 megawatts to the national electricity grid, are deliberately being kept secret.

Guenon said Areva did not know the price of the programme as the bidders did not know the extent of the risk they would take.

“I cannot give you a price now. I can ask what is the price of a car? Or what is the price of a Mercedes? But if I asked what is the price of (a particular) Mercedes, you have a chance of knowing the answer,” he said.

Polikarpov said the bidders would be guided by the South African government.

“We are prepared to abide by the rules of government. The request for proposals has not been issued yet. When it is issued, we will structure (our bid) accordingly,” he said.

‘No secret deal’

Part of the preparatory work for the nuclear programme are the bilateral nuclear co-operation agreements that South Africa has signed with China, Russia, France and the US.

Polikarpov yesterday moved to downplay the significance of the agreements. “It is not a deal. It is not a commercial contract.”

Last year, there were reports that South Africa had signed a secret nuclear deal with Russia. Russia later blamed the confusion around the nature of the agreement signed on poor communication.

Polikarpov said the agreement with Russia was similar to the one signed with the other countries. “Frankly speaking, there was no secret,” he said.

Polikarpov and Guenon also presented a united front against the criticism of nuclear waste and its costs. Polikarpov said building nuclear plants was a long-term investment that yielded value over a long period. He said he preferred to talk about nuclear’s value instead of cost. “Investment in nuclear would create jobs and stimulate consumption and infrastructure investment.”

The choice of nuclear technology for electricity generation has elicited concerns about nuclear safety. Polikarpov said it took 2.7 million tons of coal to produce 1 gigawatt-hour while it took 24 tons of uranium to produce the same amount of electricity.

“Nuclear energy is the only industry taking care of waste from construction. You cannot start (a nuclear project) if you cannot explain how you will manage waste. You will not get a licence,” Guenon said.

Leased Nuclear Services business development manager Shane Pereira said nuclear was a viable option, as “coal is not sustainable for South Africa”.