Pretoria - President Jacob Zuma has not concluded a deal to procure nuclear power from Russia, the Presidency said on Friday, following a week of intense media speculation on the contents of a “strategic partnership agreement” signed last week by Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.
The wording of a joint press statement on the agreement, released first by the Russians, appeared to confirm that South Africa would buy as many as eight nuclear reactors from Russian firm Rosatom.
It said the agreement laid the foundation for South Africa’s nuclear procurement and development programme “based on the construction in the RSA of new nuclear power plants with Russian VVER reactors with total installed capacity of up to 9.6GW”. Russian media reported the deal was in the bag.
A flurry of meetings recently between Zuma and Russian President Vladimir Putin fuelled speculation that the deal had been negotiated behind closed doors, especially as Zuma replaced his former deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, as the chair of the cabinet subcommittee in charge of energy security.
Zuma made an unscheduled visit to Russia in August, which culminated in another meeting with Putin. Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj confirmed at the time nuclear power was on the agenda.
The Energy Department confirmed this week that a decision to procure 9.6GW of nuclear power had been taken, but denied a deal had been concluded with Russia or that the procurement process had even begun.
On Friday, Maharaj said Zuma worked with the cabinet on nuclear plans and reports that he “has negotiated or will negotiate and conclude nuclear power agreements alone” were incorrect.
He said Zuma was entitled to chair any cabinet committee and the energy security subcommittee included the ministries of Energy, International Relations and Co-operation, Public Enterprises, State Security, Trade and Industry, Economic Development, Defence and Military Veterans, Mineral Resources and Environmental Affairs.
“All is on course and there is nothing untoward with regards to the country’s nuclear energy programme,” Maharaj said.
However, commentators remain confused by the decision to proceed with nuclear procurement now, despite an updated Integrated Resource Plan having urged the government to delay this decision until 2018. The plan argues that lower than anticipated economic growth, falling prices of alternative sources of electricity supply and the unquantified potential contribution of gas to the future energy mix pointed to a wait-and-see approach being essential to taking decisions of “least regret”.
The finalised revision of the plan has yet to be presented to the cabinet, but acting director-general of the Energy Department, Wolsey Barnard, gave an assurance at a press conference in Pretoria this week it would be published before the nuclear procurement process was launched.
Deputy director-general for nuclear energy Zizamele Mbambo said procurement of 9.6GW would definitely go ahead. He also said the type of procurement process to be pursued – ranging from open tender to an intergovernmental negotiated agreement – would depend on the outcome of the preparatory work the department was busy with.
Barnard said “no information of relevance to the public” would be withheld, at the same time arguing that agreements like the one signed with Russia contained “proprietary information” shared in confidence by the vendor country.
As South Africa would be concluding similar agreements with other nations, it might not be “prudent” to provide details of the contents of the agreements.