Mahlobo could release scaled-down nuclear plan next week

New Energy Minister David Mahlobo. (Photo: Gallo Images)
New Energy Minister David Mahlobo. (Photo: Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - Energy Minister David Mahlobo is still adamant that nuclear should be part of South Africa’s energy mix, but concedes surplus power and the country’s fiscal constraints have forced government to reconsider the scale.

Mahlobo gave a glimpse into what could emerge from the new Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) when he told reporters at the Energy Indaba that South Africa would push ahead with its nuclear plans, but on a smaller scale.

“What is changing is the scale and volume. We will no longer do the 9 600, it has to come down,” he said at the indaba, held in Midrand. But he didn’t want to be drawn into a possible new figure.

The IRP, a blueprint for South Africa’s energy future and energy infrastructure investment needs, could be released as early as next week, and will give a new indication of the scale of nuclear. It was only expected next year, but Mahlobo has made its finalisation a priority. 

Mahlobo acknowledged there has been a fall in demand for electricity owing to a struggling economy, with South Africa currently having a surplus of energy which is expected to last for some time. “The economy is not in good shape. We are all cognisant of this. Our mantra is pace, scale, affordability and environmental responsiveness."

The current IRP calls for 9 600 megawatts of new nuclear generation capacity, but that was published in 2010 when South Africa’s economy was growing at a good pace. The new draft IRP delayed developing any nuclear energy until 2037, but there is speculation the final policy could bring nuclear back in as a requirement.

Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba also poured cold water on the nuclear programme at the mini budget, when he said there is no room for a nuclear programme in South Africa's current constrained budget.

Gigaba said that while nuclear is definitely not off the table yet, no decision on nuclear could be made before the IRP has been updated. This led to speculation that nuclear would receive a considerable downscale in the final plan.

Civil society has been watching the Energy Indaba with hawk-eyed scrutiny for any announcement that could violate April’s Western Cape High Court judgment, which stopped the nuclear procurement in its tracks and ordered a restart with proper consultation. 

Organisations - including Greenpeace Africa‚ Groundwork‚ Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights - have expressed concern that the indaba is a smokescreen for public participation to push through the nuclear deal.

But on Tuesday Mahlobo told Life After Coal Campaign and Greenpeace Africa in a meeting that the indaba is  for business‚ labour‚ and government to discuss ways to reinvigorate the energy sector to stimulate economic growth.

It was not intended to influence the IRP, Mahlobo told the organisations.

He said that  there would be no further public participation on the IRP, with its publication imminent.

The organisations in a joint statement questioned consultation on the IRP and threatened legal action.

"We now await the publication of the IRP‚ following which we will decide the way forward‚ which may include further litigation."

Civil group the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) also protested outside the venue against the cloak and dagger nature of South Africa’s energy policies.

“This is not consultation,” said OUTA chief operating officer Ben Theron. “We absolutely reject the indaba as any form of public consultation as the ministry chose who should attend. OUTA will fight this manipulated and flawed process.”

He said the Department of Energy tried to keep the indaba as quiet as possible and, when that didn’t work, tried to block opposing voices – including OUTA – from attending.

The organisation is also worried that the indaba would regarded as consultation, and voiced bitter complaints about this to Mahlobo.

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