Rosatom moves to soothe SA nuclear fears

Fin24's Matthew le Cordeur standing at Atommash factory beside a steam turbine under construction. (Picture: Chris Yelland, EE)
Fin24's Matthew le Cordeur standing at Atommash factory beside a steam turbine under construction. (Picture: Chris Yelland, EE)

Moscow – Rosatom officials in Russia showcased their finest examples of manufacturing and nuclear energy facilities to a group of SA journalists on Tuesday, allaying fears over safety and manufacturing delays.

Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy corporation that is seen as the preferred bidder to supply 9 600 MW of nuclear energy to South Africa between 2023 and 2030, first made headlines in 2014 when it appeared the government had signed a binding deal that was estimated to cost the country R1trn. While SA denied this and began signing agreements with other countries – a legal process before a bid can be declared – some critics believe the Russian agreement looks more like a signed deal.

“We are ready,” said a staffer at the Atommash factory in Volgodonsk, 205km from the regional capital of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.

Atommash is the manufacturing wing of Rosatom and will be responsible for building South Africa’s nuclear reactors should it win the bid. It can build eight reactors in just 22 months, but it is currently only working on three orders, with several others on the way.

Speaking to Fin24 inside the factory, energy expert Chris Yelland said while it showed how amazing the nuclear technology is, the real issues centres on how South Africa would plan, manage and fund the programme.

“I have been reassured that … there is sufficient capacity for reactors for South Africa,” he said, adding that he was told South Africa would not be low on the priority list.

The invitation by Rosatom to visit its facilities stems from a July 9 2015 announcement by the Department of Energy that it had signed an agreement with Rosatom to implement a joint communication programme. This included having round tables and other events aimed at promoting nuclear power and modern nuclear technologies.

While civil society, environmental and energy experts and independent power producers have revealed countless reasons why South Africa’s planned nuclear programme is unwise, the voice of nuclear energy has appeared somewhat diluted.

Media then visited the Rostov nuclear power plant, experiencing a sophisticated, high-tech, maximum security facility that prides itself on safety and performance. The plant currently delivers about 2 000 MW through its VVER-1000 reactors, but its third unit will link another 1 000 MW commercially any day now.

Vladimir Slivyak, a critic of Rosatom, said the VVER-1000 is “known for serious accidents, including (a) hydrogen explosion at Russian Kalinin nuclear plant in late 2011”. However, Yevgeny Beklemyshew, the Rostov nuclear power plant’s deputy chief engineer for support and upgrading, said in his 15-year history at the plant since the first unit went live there had never been any issues regarding disasters, nuclear waste or spills.

A visit to unit 4, which is under construction and due for completion in 2017, gave journalists the opportunity to step into a nuclear reactor shell – a space few people have experienced.

“I’m blown away,” Yelland said after the tour. “We’ve been given access to areas of a nuclear power station that very few people have the opportunity of visiting. We’ve been right inside the heart of the beast; inside the containment vessel where a 1 000 MW reactor will operate from. It’s really awe-inspiring.”

The power plant management said transparency is key in its mission, explaining that 5 000 visitors toured its premises last year.

“The message is that this is not an engineering problem, or a technology issue or about safety, it’s not about spent nuclear fuel, it’s about management. We need to manage these projects effectively, efficiently. We’ve seen that it cannot only be done, it is being done.”

* Disclaimer: Rosatom covered all travelling costs for the group of journalists.

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