Nobody knew what the Energy Department’s nuclear power programme was going to cost and it could pan out as an exercise in “illusion, ignorance and delusion” which would burden future generations and could make the arms deal scandal appear trivial.

These were the words of nuclear power academic Stephen Thomas, who appeared before the finance standing and select committees yesterday at a hearing on the medium-term budget policy statement.

Thomas argued that nuclear energy had a troubled history in South Africa. In 1998 it was suggested that the pebble bed modular reactor would come on stream in 2003. “Nothing happened,” he charged.

His colleague, Earthlife Africa’s Tristen Taylor, told MPs nearly R10 billion in investment in the failed reactor had been poured down the drain.

The budget policy statement, presented to Parliament last week by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, had allocated R1.7bn to the SA Nuclear Energy Corporation over the next three years “with an additional R14.2 million in 2013/14 to build a waste-processing facility”.

Taylor said: “The R1.7bn is a significant expenditure and will limit the flexibility of the state in making energy choices in the future. It will be difficult for the state to justify not building nuclear reactors even if these are not the best cost option if it has already spent billions of rand on preparatory aspects of the programme.”

Taylor suggested all tenders for the programme should at least be posted online, like state procurement procedures were in Brazil.

Thomas noted that the nuclear reactor that was supposed to be off the ground this year had not happened, although tenders for it went out in 2008.

Energy Minister Dipuo Peters had estimated nuclear build costs of about R400bn. Others had put the figure near R1 trillion while the Treasury “gives different figures”, said Taylor.

Thomas noted that the R300bn cost estimate – which appeared in the February Budget review – was based on a figure of $4 000 (about R34 500) a kilowatt, but the current estimate was that it would cost at least $7 000 now.

Eskom has proposed generating 9 600MW of nuclear power by 2029. Experts say this would require between six and 10 new power stations. Three sites have been earmarked – at Koeberg, Thyspunt and Bantamsklip.

Thomas, a professor of energy policy and director of research at the University of Greenwich, noted that if reactors were built they would be “the latest generation” that took into account the dangers of Chernobyl, for example. The bottom line was that if South Africa was going to build them they would be “untested”.

There were also big questions over how the ultimate decommissioning process and the disposal of waste would be financed. “We are talking about tens of billions of rand… under conventional accounting procedures those large sums hold little weight” as they were viewed as expenditure “decades into the future”. – Donwald Pressly