December 2013 Aerial of Koeberg power station. Must credit : Bruce Sutherland, City of Cape Town

The government should temper its haste in order to address the myriad of concerns facing the nuclear build programme prior to the commencement of a potentially flawed procurement process, writes the DA's Gordon Mackay.

On Tuesday the Department of Energy and the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation will appear before Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Energy.

Their appearance before the committee comes hard on the heels of Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s announcement, in her budget speech a week ago, that her department will begin with the nuclear procurement process in the second quarter of this financial year to select a strategic partner.

The minister expects to present the outcome of the procurement process to cabinet by the end of this year.

While it is heartening to see that the government retains at least some capacity to act incisively, South Africans should be alarmed by the minister’s apparent haste.

The DA is on record as stating: “We believe that pursuit of the new nuclear programme, at this juncture, is not only confusing, but premature and potentially irresponsible.”

This is not, because as some have contended, that the DA is anti-nuclear.

Rather, the DA’s concerns regarding the acquisition of nuclear are primarily driven by bread and butter issues – such as jobs and access to electricity for the poor.

The DA is therefore primarily concerned with the impact of the proposed new nuclear programme on SA’s potential economic growth as well as the impact on the long-term electricity pricing path.

We want clear answers as to the potential impact on input costs across the economy and an assessment of the impact on jobs. We want clarity on the impact on electricity prices – will the poor, for example, be effectively priced out of legal electrical usage?

Will higher prices mean the proliferation of illegal connections - already sitting at approximately 8 percent nationally. Will higher prices encourage the non-payment culture that is increasingly prevalent?

At an estimated cost of R1 trillion before cost over runs (almost 70 percent of new nuclear build projects are behind schedule) the choice to go nuclear is nothing short of profound.

The government’s decision to proceed so aggressively with the expansion of nuclear is puzzling for seven main reasons:

* It flies in the face of government’s own National Development Plan – which clearly calls for nuclear to be considered only as a last resort. This is significant as the NDP is supposed to be the basis for all government priorities and budget allocations. That the government is so strongly diverging from the NDP on the nuclear issue – with its potential R1 trillion impact on the fiscus – will have significant implications for the NDP in its totality when one considers that funding nuclear will by definition limit resources available to the implementation of the rest of the plan.

* It is widely accepted that government’s policy framework for decisions regarding energy planning, known as the Integrated Resource (IRP) Plan and conducted in 2010, is overall a poor assessment of South Africa’s energy needs. That this is so, is further exacerbated by the fact that SA’s electricity usage now sits at 2007 levels. The IRP 2010, government’s basis for a decision in favour of nuclear, therefore vastly overstates future demands and fails to adequately adjust to rapid technological advances in renewables.

* Despite SA’s history as a nuclear power, significant concerns exist as to SA’s preparedness for civil nuclear expansion. A self-assessment conducted by the DoE in 2014, known as the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Readiness Assessment and subsequently audited by the International Atomic Energy Agency, reportedly indicated that South Africa was considered deficient in almost 40 percent of the 19 categories of assessment indicating that SA is not well positioned to expand its civil nuclear capacity.

* Bi-annual assessments by the World Association of Nuclear Operators also raise serious concerns as to the current management practices of SA’s existing nuclear facility.

Critically their assessment identified serious leadership and management issues at Koeberg that may potentially undermine the Station’s safe operation.

The report further identifies serious skills deficiency in key staff – such as nuclear reactor operators – suggesting that Eskom’s broader management policies in relation to Koeberg are inadequate and that the cash flow problems of Eskom are severely impacting the safe operation of Koeberg.

It states, for example, that “Eskom’s management policies do not promote a nuclear safety culture within the organisation or at Koeberg”.

* Significant challenges exist at the National Nuclear Regulator and it is generally accepted the NNR is toothless and incompetent.

It is clear that the NNR lacks a proper understanding of its role and more alarmingly is poorly capacitated to fulfil its mandate as a nuclear watchdog. Sources inside Koeberg, for example, indicate that even the most basic of functions of the regulator can take up to two years to complete.

Such a weak regulator is sure to crack under the pressure of the intense nuclear procurement process for which it will be responsible and will be unable to effectively regulate up to nine additional nuclear reactors.

* The ongoing delays by the DoE and the NNR to establish the National Radioactive Waste Institute – despite the enabling legislation being passed in 2009, a pre-requisite to any future nuclear expansion in SA – further emphasises the inexperience of government in regard to nuclear expansion. It also speaks to skills shortages at the DoE’s nuclear division and more broadly in the nuclear sector.

* Finally, despite the minister’s announcement on nuclear, the DoE has actually slashed the budget of the nuclear division.

This is particularly concerning considering government’s intentions regarding nuclear expansion.

Public confidence is critical to the success of any ambitious government programme and, as such, the government should temper its haste in order to address the myriad of concerns facing the nuclear build programme prior to the commencement of a potentially flawed procurement process.

Cape Argus

* Gordon Mackay is the DA’s energy spokesman.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.