Surreal moments for witness to pitch

2014-10-24 00:00

HAIRS stood up on my neck at being in a room where a R1 trillion deal was being pitched.

After three days of secret presentations at the Champagne Sports Resort in the Drakensberg, Department of Energy and Rosatom officials retired to the El Mirador Lounge to iron out the details on Wednesday night.

I half expected to see relaxed delegates discussing the actual building of eight Russian reactors in South Africa, given allegations Rosatom had secretly won the procurement before rival bids were even considered.

Instead, 15 officials from both countries — crammed into three large sofas — were engaged in intense discussions, via an interpreter, on whether the Russian technology was suitable at all.

Sitting beneath pictures of orchids, the men speaking Russian were bidding for a contract worth about 20 times the value of the arms deal, and the stress told on their faces.

The issue within El Mirador was how resistant Rosatom’s VVER nuclear power stations were to flooding and tsunamis.

Pitching hard, a Ros­atom director said their design had the problem covered: “Whenever we look for a site, we evaluate possible levels of floods. If necessary, we install [additional] equipment.”

The South African expert wasn’t satisfied: “We’ll look at your detailed submission”.

The Russian was careful to emphasise long-term “support” for any future Russian network, in answer to the government’s challenge that the winning bidder generates jobs as well as electricity.

I was noticed after about 15 minutes and asked to leave the room.

At the same time — 7 pm — other teams from the Department of Energy and the Russian government were still conferring in the main Summit Room venue.

Meanwhile, some officials not involved in either break-out session were talking shop in the hotel lobby, arguing passionately against “public hysteria” on the issue of nuclear energy safety.

One South African delegate complained that “the media is sensationalist, especially about nuclear”.

A colleague agreed: “There were no deaths at [the nuclear accident at] 3 Mile Island. There were, what, 40 deaths at Chernobyl? Compare all the casualties [of nuclear energy] to a single 747 crash.”

His friend chimed in: “Actually, you get higher radiation rates just travelling on a plane.”

This was not a typical, low-energy government conference — and not just because of the veil of secrecy.

The hotel receptionist said she couldn’t discuss the parties at the hotel conference as it was “very sensitive”.

And when I confessed to Thandiwe Maimane, spokesperson for the Department of Energy, that I had “eavesdropped” on the delegates, she said: “How did you even know we were here?”

In a lounge late on Wednesday night, a Russian delegate was laughing uproariously at a YouTube clip on his smartphone showing a fat man being slapped by numerous hands to make music.

But he would not confirm he was with Ros­atom, and said: “We have been told not to make any comment to the outside”.

He did, however, plug Russian nuclear technology: “After Fukushima, we made improvements to our designs.”

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