The past few days have been particularly interesting for Eskom, its planned nuclear build and all interested parties – office-chair bound journalists included!
The state entity floated its request for information and before anyone could finish saying ‘RFI’, news reports came flying through that Eskom had advertised a tender and that the public protector had found its contracts with Tegeta to be illegal. Then more reports that RosAtom – the Russian state owned Nuclear concern had submitted a bid for the nuclear build tender.
And then frosting on the cake? Corruption Watch (SA) executive director David Lewis chose this period to announce Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Indices; even used the opportunity to throw in his two cents’ worth to the nuclear build debate. He advised South Africa that Russia was a very corrupt country and that trading with Russia would create opportunities to ‘import corruption’. The executive director was more precise: he warned South Africa (read Eskom) that allowing Russia (read RosAtom) to participate in the nuclear build programme would import more graft! For those that might have missed it, Russia and South Africa were awarded CPI scores of 29 and 45 respectively; the lower the country’s score the more corrupt the country’s government. In the Lewitian logic, since South Africa is 16 points less corrupt than Russia, and since corruption has a diffusion type of movement, graft would move from Russia to South Africa if the two countries engaged in trade. A close look at the CPI 2016 table places the US at 16 notches below Denmark, yet there are no reports of Corruption Watch warning Denmark to be wary of trading with the US. The fact is South Africa and Russia already engage in commercial trade – about $1 Billion of it per annum. Should we then blame the Russians for bringing corruption to South Africa? Anyhow, that’s beside the point.
The point is that from the time the South African government announced plans to expand its nuclear power generation capacity it has been the subject of negative media coverage – most of it unjustified. Thousands of lines have been written by environmentalists, journalists, opposition politicians, satirists and lay people denouncing the idea of South Africa going nuclear, apparently forgetting the country has safely and successfully operated three nuclear reactors – one for research and isotope production, and two for power generation for close to 50 years. Reasons ranging from potential for corruption, environmental disasters to astronomical costs (ZAR 1 Trillion was peddled at some point) were cited. The naysayers’ chorus became more fervent when it was suggested that RosAtom was favourite in a potential race that could include nuclear enterprises from France, China, South Korea, and Japan.
A simple check on Google reveals that the Russians have the longest experience in generating power from nuclear reactors. As the Soviet Union, they were in fact the first nation to build a nuclear power plant and currently maintain a fleet of 31 power stations. Of course one cannot overlook accidents that have occurred most notably in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl. It is undeniable that this incident was a major disaster, and a major milestone too in the history of nuclear power engineering. A myriad lessons have been learned to the extent that repeats have not occurred and are unlikely to occur. Russia through RosAtom has exported its nuclear power generation technology to several European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries including Finland, Hungary, Turkey, Belarus, China, India, and Bangladesh. Recently an agreement was signed with Tanzania for possible construction of a nuclear power station.
When considering these facts, the fear of RosAtom as a potential nuclear technology provider to South Africa can only be considered as an extension of media-fuelled hysteria of the non-existent Russian aggression and threat. To potential economic competitors this hysteria is a free tool to create indignation amongst the South African public to anything Russian with the ultimate intention of influencing government’s decisions in the awarding of the build project.
To bring more facts to the nuclear discussion, several interesting articles quoting industry experts were published in the media. In one article the mythical R1 Trillion bill was dispelled (1), while in another (2) the power-from-solar-and-wind fairy tale was critically addressed. But who needs facts and a few experts when charlatans and Joe Publics are readily available to feed our fear of the Zuma and Russian gevaar?