Ignore ‘politics’, says the Russian company that wants to build nuclear in SA about Ukraine

Business Insider SA

News analysis

A mushroom cloud after the explosion of a French a
A mushroom cloud after a French atomic bomb test in the Pacific, in 1971. (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)
  • Russia's state-owned nuclear company Rosatom doesn't think "politics" – around things such as the invasion of Ukraine – should influence nuclear relations.
  • Rosatom still hopes to build nuclear reactors in South Africa, after being promised contracts eight years ago.
  • Its previous plans included the transport of enriched material to plants it would operate in SA, and taking spent fuel back to Russia again.
  • That could now be awkward, as could using American and European Union money to connect Rosatom reactors to South Africa's grid.
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In 2014, South Africa agreed that Russia’s state-owned Rosatom would build up to eight nuclear reactors in SA, to supply up to 9.6GW of power.

The plan fell apart when it turned out that then President Jacob Zuma, who had reportedly personally struck the deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had neither the authority nor political support to bind South Africa to what would have been its biggest procurement deal ever.

But South Africa still has plans for a new nuclear build, and Rosatom remains an "interested vendor", even as its government owner upends the world with a war in Europe.

"Rosatom believes that relations in the field of nuclear energy should be distanced from politics," the company told Business Insider South Africa, when asked to what extent the invasion of Ukraine may endanger its plans for South Africa. "Rosatom is committed to and continues to fulfil all of its contractual obligations."

It did not answer specific questions, including whether it was concerned about possible South African sanctions against Russia, of the kind Ukraine has urged South Africa to impose.

See also on News24 | Calls for SA to join sanctions against Russia as Ukraine invasion intensifies

The South African government on Thursday called for Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine, but it has not condemned the invasion beyond expressing disapproval of war in general. It has given no indication that it will take any action, diplomatic or economic, against Russia, and President Cyril Ramaphosa did not personally reiterate the call for a Russian withdrawal on Friday. Instead he urged the United Nations Security Council to deal with the war.

Other countries have been more pointed about their disapproval – including all of the partners that have promised to inject a massive sum into South Africa's energy infrastructure. 

In November, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France promised South Africa the equivalent of some R130 billion in cheap money to help with a transition away from coal. Eskom says it has projects ready to soak up some of that cash, including expanding its grid to connect non-fossil-fuel generators.

The USA and European Union this week imposed sanctions on Russia with a focus on cutting its government off from international capital markets, and cutting Russian state-owned banks out of international transactions.

Those countries have not said how they would feel about seeing their money used to connect Russian nuclear power stations to South Africa's electrical grid, but it is safe to presume they would not approve.

Under previous Rosatom plans, it would be a major player in the South African grid, generating around a tenth of all the electricity used in SA from plants it would build and operate.

The company's previous pitches have included a full lifecycle management of nuclear fuel, which would see it transport enriched nuclear material to South Africa, and shipping spent fuel back to Russia again.

See also | Ukraine says radiation levels around Chernobyl are increasing after fighting there

Rosatom did not say whether the sanctions already imposed on Russia would make it trickier to transport nuclear material and waste around the world in that fashion. It is safe to presume that it would.

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