Defending the nukes deal

2014-11-15 00:00

A DURBAN nuclear scientist has found himself a guest in corridors of power from Moscow to Nkandla this year, as South Africa plots its massive nuclear programme.

Energy consultant Dr Kelvin Kemm has emerged as a key figure in the controversial plan to establish a fully fledged nuclear industry in South Africa, including the construction of up to nine nuclear reactors.

The former Durban North schoolboy has briefed the head of the Russian nuclear bidder on adapting their technology for unique South African conditions.

And he has served as the chief lobbyist to cabinet to build a major nuclear industry, having briefed the president and deputy president in one-on-one sessions.

Now an energy consultant, Kemm — who once designed components for the reactor at Pelindaba — lost an earlier battle to see the country roll out and export its Pebble Bed Modular Reactor.

But he is winning his greater energy battle, with the Department of Energy committed to using nuclear for almost a quarter of the country’s energy grid, and already hearing reactor design presentations from vendor countries.

He told Weekend Witness: “I get messages from all over the world complimenting our cabinet. People are saying that South Africa is the one country in the world with the courage to go nuclear in a big way.”

Some environmental groups, including Earthlife Africa, have called Kemm’s high-level influence “dangerous”, alleging that he exaggerated the jobs and export benefits of the deal, and played down the dangers of accidents.

Kemm said nuclear was “by far” the safest form of base-load energy, adding: “Sadly there is so much nuclear misinformation spread around, much of it deliberately designed to be confusing and scary”. The scale of South Africa’s gamble on nuclear is revealed in a World Nuclear Association report, which shows that the biggest nuclear import deal yet concluded — in Turkey — is less than half the size of Pretoria’s import plan.

A former nuclear physics PhD at UKZN, Kemm told Weekend Witness that he had advised senior cabinet members that the ideal final contract would see 50% of the project being built here.

And he insists that the cost, estimated between R500 billion and R1 trillion, was “not really a cost at all”, but an investment that would result in export revenues similar to the car industry.

The DA has called the nuclear deal a potential national disaster, and stated, “Why is [Zuma] so committed to nuclear energy expansion, contrary to the National Development Plan, which foresees renewable energy as a far more cost-effective option?”

Kemm said these criticisms were based on the “huge misconception” that, for instance, a 100 mW solar power station produced the same electricity as a 100 mW nuclear station.

“In fact, a wind station doesn’t work for 70% of the time, when the wind stops blowing, and solar only operates for 15 to 20% of the time. A nuclear reactor produces electricity for you for 90% of the time, stopping only for refuelling and scheduled maintenance.”

Earlier this year, Kemm, along with former nuclear energy corporation CEO Rob Adam, was flown to Moscow by the company now bidding for South Africa’s nuclear contract, Rosatom, for a series of seminars.

Whisked around in limousines, the week-long trip included a meeting with the CEO of the giant agency, Sergey Kiriyenko.

Kemm said he had also been “privileged” to visit Nkandla this year, and noted that President Jacob Zuma had a “good understanding” of the nuclear project.

The DA has alleged that Zuma has done a secret deal with Russia to give the entire contract to Rosatom; an allegation the government denies.

Yesterday, The Witness revealed that Zuma had previously brokered a major deal for a Rosatom subsidiary, which now supplies almost half of Koeberg’s uranium fuel.

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