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The 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant has had a chilling effect on the global nuclear power industry, and has forced a rethink of nuclear power even in nations that have relied heavily on it for decades.
Germany, for example, having long been a major user of emission-free nuclear power, recently has reverted to a greater reliance on one of the oldest power-generating fuels: coal. And France, which has relied on nuclear energy for 75 percent of its electricity is hoping to reduce this reliance as many of its reactors age.
South Africa, on the other hand, is going against the grain. This year it plans to begin building six new nuclear power plants to meet a goal of generating 9,600 megawatts of power within 15 years in an effort to ease its domestic energy deficit. The cost, though, will be high: between $34 billion and $84 billion.
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“We expect to present the outcome of this procurement process to cabinet by year-end,” Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa’s legislative capital, on May 19, and she promised that the proceedings would be conducted in a “fair and transparent” fashion.
Exactly which company or companies – and from which country or countries – will be involved in the massive project isn’t yet clear.
In September South Africa announced a deal under which Russia would build plants at a cost of $10 billion, but there’s no word on which Russian company might be in charge.
Furthermore, Joemat-Petterson didn’t say when specific construction deals would be made public. It is up to the Cabinet to decide whether to divulge or withhold such information, and even Parliament has right to deliberate on such transactions in secret if it feels that would be the best course.
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Besides Russia, Pretoria also has signed deals for nuclear power with several other countries including China, France, South Korea and the United States. In all these cases, though, the government, controlled by the African National Congress, responded to opposition charges that it was ignoring the country’s official procurement rules, and stressed that that all the deals were merely in the early stages.
In part because of its breadth, the project may never be approved by Parliament, if the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has its way. Joemat-Petterson’s address to the body quickly turned into an argument. The minister contended that the government’s energy policy, established in 2008, allows for an expansion of nuclear power in South Africa to meet the country’s energy needs.
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DA members, however, responded that they found the policy bewildering. Gordon Mackay, the opposition’s shadow deputy minister of energy, said, “[w]e in the DA find the minister’s announcement to go ahead with the nuclear build program to be downright confusing, premature and irresponsible.”
Mackay also said the United Nation’s nuclear overseer, the International Atomic Energy Agency, had determined that more than 40 percent of the assessment criteria of South Africa’s nuclear preparedness regime were deficient, “strongly indicating that South Africa is simply not ready to expand its nuclear capability safely.”
Nevertheless, Joemat-Petterson said the procurement process will begin in the third quarter of South Africa’s fiscal year, which begins July 1.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com