December 17, 2017

What’s the deal on the nuclear deal?

Twenty-four hours after Energy Minister Mahlobo stood his ground saying that nuclear energy was inevitable, Finance Minister Gigaba seems to have changed his mind on whether we can afford it.

Gigaba’s apparent flip-flop came soon after Mahlobo faced down a barrage of questions from members of the parliamentary Energy Committee who were demanding to know where the money would come from for a nuclear deal.

Mahlobo’s response at the Energy Commitee meeting on Tuesday was a consistently sanguine reply: “when the time comes, we will make a plan.”

In the Committee meeting, members repeatedly asked the Minister how a nuclear deal could possibly still be under consideration in the current desperate economic climate and an almost inevitable further economic downgrade.

Members repeatedly asked the Minister how a nuclear deal could possibly still be under consideration in the current desperate economic climate.

Gavin Davies from the DA had directly asked Mahlobo: “Do you disagree with your Finance Minister? Where will the money come from?”

Of course this was before Gigaba’s apparent fresh look at the country’s Budget and some weeks after his categorical announcement at his October Medium Term Budget Policy Statement that South Africa could not afford a nuclear programme and does not have the money to fund one.

Gigaba had held nothing back in his mini-Budget which painted a desperately bleak economic scenario.

Yet Mahlobo seems not to have heard that clear message. He told the Tuesday that going forward South Africa’s energy policy would be a “mix” of renewable and non-renewable sources.

Addressing the Committee for about two hours, Mahlobo refused to rule out a future nuclear procurement deal. He told the Committee that the country needs nuclear energy and it remained part of South Africa’s future energy mix. Opponents of nuclear energy could not wish it away, he said.

Mahlobo envisaged nuclear energy growing to provide as much as 20% of South Africa’s energy by 2030.

He told the Committee that South Africa is “blessed with uranium that could be extracted for nuclear power”.

So set is Mahlobo on a nuclear energy deal that he also disregarded the Cape Town High Court ruling in April that the pending nuclear deal with Russia was “unlawful and unconstitutional”, and the subsequent civil society threat to charge him for contempt of court.

The protests in Cape Town yesterday by citizens, including many who had come from as far afield as the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Karoo, and the public march to Parliament against the nuclear deal are unlikely to have made any impression.

Protesters had first gathered first at St George’s Mall for a public debate on nuclear energy for South Africa. They had invited political parties to speak out, but only Cope and UDM attended to oppose any nuclear deal.

On the initial estimated cost of R1trillion for the nuclear deal. Mahlobo added to the confusion by commenting at the Tuesday Committee meeting that R1trillion was “not my figure”. As to whether a deal was already underway, he indicated that there is no nuclear deal on the table at present, but referred to an unspecified tender valued at R100bn.

This raised the ire of committee members who wanted clarity on nuclear plans.

“I want the minister to explain this R1trillion issue once and for all,” said Zukisa Faku of the ANC.

The DA’s Gordon Mackay described the status of the nuclear programme as “shrouded in mystery”. He told the Committee that the Minister “better damn well explain why we need nuclear”.

Mackay questioned why former energy minister Dipuo Peters, who held the post from 2009 to 2013, had declared a nuclear deal unaffordable, yet since Mahlobo took over the department in the October 2017 cabinet reshuffle plans to restart the nuclear programme had revived.

Dr Blade Nzimande (ANC) expressed concern about how the costs involved would impact on the poor, while Rismati Mavunda (ANC) wanted to know from the Minister how nuclear energy would provide poverty relief.

Jan Esterhuizen( IFP) asked the Minister, “how can it be financially justifiable to start a nuclear programme? How will we be able to afford it?”

Chairperson of the committee, Fikile Mahola of the ANC, said “it was time to deal with such issues.” Mahola told the Minister that the Committee needed “absolute clarity” not only for themselves, but also for the public.

Mahola said while there has been discussion on a nuclear deal, the Committee had called this meeting specifically to deal with this matter.

Sune Payne and Moira Levy

A version of this story first appeared in GroundUp News.

Last modified on Thursday, 23 November 2017 19:01

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