Secret KZN nuke talks

2014-10-24 00:00

TWENTY of Vladimir Putin’s top nuclear experts pitched for South Africa’s biggest-ever deal — with an estimated R1 trillion price tag — at a secret meeting in the Drakensberg yesterday.

The Witness can reveal that 50 South African experts — including its nuclear chief, Zizamele Mbambo — grilled officials from Russia’s state atomic energy company, Rosatom, at a secretive four-day conference at the Champagne Sports Resort.

Officials initially denied that Rosatom was present, and the secrecy blanket included the omission of the firm’s name from all workshop materials.

However, a Witness reporter gained access to one key meeting for 15 minutes before being ejected, and also traced the name of the South African head of Rosatom to a chalet at the hotel.

Rosatom officials pitched eight of their “VVER” pressurised water reactors for South Africa’s massive “nuclear build” programme.

It is intended to add 9 600 megawatts to the grid by 2030.

In an interview at the hotel, Mbambo said a French company was expected to pitch six of its slightly larger reactors at a similar conference.

The Russians were given the opportunity to present the first workshop in which to “parade” their offering, and France and China are set to follow later.

However, Mbambo revealed that other invited countries — including South Korea and the U.S. — could potentially miss out on consideration if their presentations were not ready in terms of an unspecified deadline.

Echoing the concerns of unions and accountability watchdogs, the DA last week alleged that the secretive workshops with various countries were “window dressing”, and that “all evidence points to a done deal with the Russians”.

This follows the revelation that President Jacob Zuma had struck a private agreement with Putin in August, and a statement by Rosatom in September that a deal for “actual joint construction” had been struck with the South African government.

The Department of Energy later said the statement had been “misundersatood”, and Mbambo yesterday said: “No vendor has been chosen, and the procurement process has not yet begun.”

When The Witness sat in on a key meeting on Wednesday night, engineers and experts were grilling the Russian vendor as if no procurement deal had been struck.

Instead, local officials asked hard questions on a string of technical requirements, as well as the off-set opportunities their bid would provide for local jobs and component manufacture.

One local official asked: “What are the minimum and maximum flood levels your generators [nuclear plants] can tollerate?”

The Rosatom official included the word “Fukushima” in his reply in Russian, but the interpreter did not repeat it.

Instead, he mentioned design protections up to “an elevation of 40 metres”, and added: “In Russia, we do not have generators near the sea — only rivers”.

The Rosatom official assured the South Africans that “our design removes heat — our main aim is to provide safety”.

One South African negotiator was overheard complaining to colleagues: “There is an anti-Russia and anti-Zuma campaign going on out there.”

The event was so secretive that the name “Rosatom” did not appear on any conference badges or place cards, and Russian officials also refused to confirm who they were when they were questioned about their identities.

But two members of the Russian delegation wore “Rosatom” golf shirts at the breakfast buffet, and The Witness established that Rosatom’s Viktor Poli­karpov was staying in chalet 27.

An Energy Department official later confirmed they were the bidding vendor.

Xolisa Mabhongo, head of corporate services for the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, said vendors “understood” that the programme should trigger a new South African manufacturing industry.

“It does not only depend on the vendors — we will seek significant localisation in this process,” said Mabhongo.

“As a country that will be a client, it is in our interest to create jobs and grow our economy.”

Mbambo said the Russian presentation had been “comprehensive”.

He said that the workshops had been held behind closed doors “due to the proprietry rights of these companies” — but said the future procurement process would be “fully transparent”.

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