SA Nuclear energy sector ‘own worst enemy’

Matthew le Cordeur

Cape Town – Members of the nuclear energy sector are their “own worst enemies” when it comes to the global perception of the industry, delegates at the SA Nuclear Supply Chain Conference were told in Cape Town on Tuesday.

Leon Louw, executive director at the Free Market Foundation, said the nuclear industry has been “catastrophic” and “counter-productive” at selling itself.

“Almost everything that comes from nuclear engineers and physicists is bad for nuclear,” he said. “They say the wrong thing all the time.”

Louw said the nuclear industry should start getting its act together and start marketing itself boldly as the “safest, most environmentally friendly and, with realistic standards, the cheapest form of bulk energy supplier for baseload power”.

Environmental lobby groups like Greenpeace receive tremendous support from religious and civic society groups as well as the general public. Its message is clear: nuclear energy must go.

Andrew Kenny, an independent energy analyst, told delegates that nuclear is “regarded with suspicion, hostility and fear by many people around the world”.

“The main fault in both instances lies with appallingly bad public relations from the nuclear power industry,” he said.

Adapting former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s World War II famous line, he said: “Never in the history of industry has such a good technology been so badly presented.”

Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company, Rosatom, conceded in September that poor public relations in 2014 resulted in a perception that it had struck a done deal with South Africa to provide 9 600 MW of nuclear energy by 2030.

Officially, that is not the case, although critics will argue that President Jacob Zuma’s “secret visit” to Russia shortly before the intergovernmental agreement was signed should ring alarm bells.

Russia is not the only country in the running to win South Africa's Nuclear Build Programme, as France, South Korea, China and the US have since signed similar agreements with South Africa, a prerequisite before the vendor process, which is expected to be complete on March 31 2016.

Rosatom is the platinum sponsor of the supply chain conference taking place in Cape Town, which has brought 100 nuclear experts from across the globe to help develop solutions for South Africa’s challenges and highlight key business development opportunities for companies.

A battle of ideas over nuclear energy is clearly underway, with the World Wide Fund (WWF) telling Fin24 that SA media should watch out for the Rosatom PR machine.

Referring to several Rosatom-sponsored media trips to Russia this year, WWF cautioned South African journalists accepting tours of nuclear power facilities against publishing advertorials.

Saliem Fakir, head of policy and futures unit at the WWF for Nature South Africa, said journalists should study the facts more carefully before publishing biased viewpoints.