Energy Dept finally responds to nuclear court challenge

Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.
Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

Cape Town – The Department of Energy (DoE) finally submitted replying affidavits last week in response to a court challenge by two environmentalist groups over South Africa's nuclear intergovernmental agreement it signed with Russia in 2014.

That is according to Southern African Faith Communities' Environment Institute (Safcei) and Earthlife Africa (ELA) on Sunday, who said the DoE spent months delaying the process.

“Only after Safcei and ELA’s legal team issued warning letters, threatening to go to court to force them to respond, did government finally reply,” the groups said.

READ: Safcei prepared to go to ConCourt over ‘secret’ nuclear deal

Explaining the court application, the groups claim government announced that the Russian 9.6GW nuclear new build agreement was a done deal in 2014, but backtracked after public outcry, with President Jacob Zuma telling the nation that it would build nuclear reactors “on a scale and pace that our country can afford”.  

Russian nuclear firm Rosatom told Fin24 in 2015 that its press release in 2014 incorrectly alluded to a done deal, but said this was far from the truth.

“We cannot hook up with a politician and make a deal (that will span) generations,” Viktor Polikarpov, Rosatom’s head of sub-Saharan Africa operations, said in February.

Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson also denied the deal. “We are committed to transparency,” she said in 2015. “We are not going to compromise our country in any way.”

READ: Environmentalists: SA did sign nuclear deal with Russia

However, ELA and Safcei maintained on Sunday that the Russian agreement was entered into unlawfully. The signed agreement “makes internationally binding commitment to buy a fleet of nuclear reactors from Russia”, they said.

On 21 December 2015, the DoE gazetted the 2013 section 34 determination, clearing the way for it to begin the procurement process to buy nuclear reactors.  

DoE director general Thabane Zulu said the process would start on March 31, but to date no request for proposals have been released.

A day before this was supposed to take place, Fin24 reported that Safcei and ELA had received documentation indicating that a binding deal had been signed with Russia.

From the state law adviser’s explanatory memorandum that was prepared in November 2013 but only revealed recently to Safcei/ELA, “it is evident that the Russian agreement is to build reactors and an enrichment plant", they said.

Now that government has responded, these allegations can be tested in court to determine whether the intergovernmental agreement South Africa signed with Russia in 2014 is binding, and whether it is legally bound to use only Russian nuclear reactors in the procurement process.

If this is found to be true, South Africa did in fact sign a nuclear deal with Russia. If not, the procurement process that is currently unfolding may result in a formal deal, but would allow the process to be shelved with no repercussions.


The French are expecting the DoE to issue a request for proposals “any time from now”, French special envoy for the bid, Pascal Colombani, said on June 1.

France is one of the potential bidders for the nuclear build programme, alongside Russia, China, the United States, and South Korea.

Colombani hoped the ultimate decision on bidders would not be purely political.

“In fact, I’m pretty convinced, I cannot believe otherwise, that the decision would not be made on economic and technical grounds. Of course, politics will always play a role, but I would expect it to play a minor role.”


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