Rosatom’s nuclear charm campaign misses point: It’s the economics, stupid

The issuing of brown envelopes, a practice still widely applied in Nigeria, is the oldest media manipulation trick in the book. All-expenses paid trips to exotic destinations follows closely behind, an approach currently employed by Rosatom, major beneficiary of President Jacob Zuma’s $100bn nuclear deal. Rosatom has started a charm offensive to win over a sceptical South African public. As the report below from our partners at Fin24 illustrates, the Russians are rolling out a very red carpet for selected reporters. And when an electricity sector expert like Chris Yelland gushes about Russian technology, there are few who would argue. But that entirely misses the point. To borrow a phrase from the late, great Russian sceptic Ronald Reagan: It’s the economics, stupid. – Alec Hogg

By Matthew le Cordeur

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.

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“We are ready,” said a staffer at the Atommash factory in Volgodonsk, 205km from the Oblast 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 other orders on the way.

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

“I have been re-assured 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 9 July 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.

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While environmental, civil society, 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 000MW through its VVER-1000 reactors, but its third unit will link another 1 000MW commercially any day now.

Vladimir Slivyak, a critic of Rosatom, said the VVER-1000 is “known for serious accidents, including hydrogen explosion at Russian Kalinin nuclear plant in late 2011”. However, Yevgeny Beklemyshew, Rostov Nuclear Power Plant’s deputy chief engineer for support and upgrading, said in his 15-year history at the plant when 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.

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“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 1000MW reactor will operate from. It’s really awe inspiring.”

The power plant management said transparency is key in its mission, explaining that it had 5 000 visitors tour 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. – Fin24


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