Observers hoping to gain insights into South Africa's nuclear energy plans have had their hopes dashed. Two International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conferences have recently taken place in quick succession. The first, an International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century held in St Petersburg Russia from 27 to 29 June 2013, saw the last minute withdrawal of both the Energy Minister and the CEO of Eskom.
This seemed to indicate that the tussle between the Department of Energy (DoE) and the National Planning Commission (NPC) on the future of nuclear energy in South Africa is yet to be resolved. This policy disagreement made headlines in April 2013, on the back of a report drafted by the Energy Research Centre for the National Planning Commission. The report argued for a revision of the country's Integrated Resources Plan of 2010 (IRP2010). It specifically questioned the financial viability of nuclear expansion and argued that future energy demand should rather be met with imported hydropower, wind and natural gas. Director General in the Department of Energy Nelisiwe Magubane responded by telling the parliamentary oversight committee that the country's nuclear energy plans were "non-negotiable".
The sudden withdrawal of then Energy Minister, Dipuo Peters, from the St. Petersburg conference made more sense in the light of the subsequent cabinet reshuffle. Barely a week after the conference, she and the Minister of Transport swopped portfolios. Even before the new Minister of Energy, Ben Martins, was made Minister of Transport, he, as Deputy Minister of Public Enterprises announced in May 2012, that the fate of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) would be decided during 2013. Government indicated that, though they had pulled support for the PBMR, they remained committed to protecting and preserving intellectual property and assets related to this technology. To that end, the Departments of Public Enterprises and Science and Technology pursued intellectual property and skills audits of the PBMR.
The conference in Russia was followed soon after by the International Conference on Nuclear Security of the IAEA, which took place from 1 to 5 July 2013 in Vienna, Austria. This time South Africa had high-level representation from International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. The Minister's statement on the occasion focused not only on the country's continued commitment to the military security aspects of nuclear use, but also referred to South Africa's need for energy security and diversification away from coal. She alluded to the policy of beneficiation of mineral resources, with specific reference to uranium - one of the minerals the country has declared as strategic.
Minister Mashabane's remarks seem to imply continued commitment to the nuclear energy expansion programme planned in the IRP2010. However, the country's non-committal stance in Russia would suggest that nothing is yet final. Those who have indicated their interest in investing in nuclear equipment and expertise in South Africa - including Russia's state energy group Rosatom and the French Areva - will be watching upcoming developments in South Africa with interest. In addition to safety and financial viability, concern has also been raised around the opacity of the government's nuclear plans. All of these issues are discussed in a recent Occasional Paper titled, "South Africa's Nuclear Future", published by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). The paper argues that unless South Africa's nuclear planners meet the concerns mentioned above head-on, their programmes will fail to inspire confidence, both at home and abroad.
Upcoming opportunities for public engagement include an extensive consultation process to be conducted after the submission to Cabinet of a long-awaited Integrated Energy Plan. On the international stage, the 57th Annual General Session of the IAEA General Conference - the highest policymaking body of the IAEA and composed of all member states of the agency - will take place from 16 to 20 September 2013 in Vienna, Austria. All South African stakeholders involved in the nuclear debate must seize these and other opportunities to seek greater clarity on the country's nuclear future. After all, this is an important question connected to not just power generation but also the all-important question of national economic competitiveness.
Mari-Lise du Preez is Programme Manager of the Governance of Africa's Resources Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).