• Energy minister commits to thorough cost-benefit analysis
  • Opposition says statements on nuclear power are contradictory

South Africa’s government pledged to be financially responsible in purchasing as many as eight new nuclear reactors, toning down its enthusiasm for the project as concern mounts within the ruling African National Congress over their affordability.

“There is no deal we have signed with anybody,” Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told lawmakers in Cape Town on Tuesday. “We are committed to a thorough cost-benefit analysis of nuclear power,” she said, adding that it was part of the procurement process. “We are not going to compromise our country in any way.”

President Jacob Zuma first announced plans in February 2014 to add 9,600 megawatts of nuclear power to the national grid to address energy shortages in Africa’s most industrialized economy. While the government has declined to reveal the expected cost because the contracts are still being negotiated, estimates range from $37 billion to $100 billion.

Signs of opposition within the ANC to the new plants surfaced on Aug. 18, when the party published a policy paper calling for a full, transparent and thorough evaluation of nuclear power. The document, which will be discussed at the party’s policy review conference in October, urged the state to consider using more hydro-power and electricity generated from gas.

The government believes South Africa needs more atomic power to diversify its energy mix and meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Joemat-Pettersson said.

If approved, the first reactor is targeted to come on line in 2023. Areva SA, EDF SA, Toshiba Corp.’s Westinghouse Electric Corp., China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Corp., Rosatom Corp. and Korea Electric Power Corp. are interested in building the new nuclear power stations. The nation currently operates one nuclear plant near Cape Town and relies on coal for more than 90 percent of its electricity.

“Pressing ahead with the 9,600 megawatts as part of the energy mix is the standing policy and that’s what will be pursued,” Fikile Majola, a ruling party lawmaker who chairs the National Assembly’s energy committee, said in an interview in Cape Town on Tuesday. “If, after a thorough cost-benefit analysis, we realize it is something that is unaffordable, I’m sure it is not something that we will be able to press ahead with."

A study published in 2013 by the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre found nuclear plants weren’t needed and wouldn’t be cost-effective for 15 to 25 years, based on a projected cost of $7,000 per kilowatt installed.

The government’s statements on nuclear energy were contradictory and it should ascertain whether new plants are viable before committing to building them, Gordon Mackay, energy spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Alliance, said by e-mail.

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