Nuclear energy in South Africa is a highly contested issue; so much so that a court recently ruled against the government’s plans to issue a contract for the construction of eight new nuclear power stations.
The ruling appeared to have delivered a significant blow to President Jacob Zuma, and those who support him, who had set their sights on immediate nuclear expansion. The court’s decision was met with jubilation by those opposing the nuclear plan.
The expectation was that the government would appeal the decision. It didn’t, but this shouldn’t be read as a shift in its thinking.
Minister of Energy Nkhensani Kubayi made it clear after the court ruling that, while there would be no appeal, the government remained fully committed to nuclear expansion, and was planning to initiate a new process without delay.
This signals a realisation by government that an appeal would have little chance of success, and that a lengthy court process would tie up the parties in legal cases for months or even years. This would delay a nuclear build even further.
The minister has made it clear that the government is not giving up on its push for the controversial nuclear plan. But it has realised the process must start from scratch. This is the clearest indication yet that Zuma intends launching the nuclear build before his term of office ends in 2019.
Adding to fears that the government isn’t giving up the fight was the surprise reinstatement of Brian Molefe as CEO of the country’s power utility Eskom. Molefe left the job under a cloud six months ago. His reappointment led to immediate and widespread public outrage. Many have interpreted his return as beefing up the quest for nuclear.
Molefe’s return, however, isn’t as critical to the nuclear project as imagined, as Eskom has maintained his pro-nuclear stance in his absence.
What’s more important is that it’s clear that contestation around the future of South Africa’s energy sector will continue unabated. This despite the president having been severely weakened in recent months, and with it the power of the pro-nuclear lobby supported by his faction.