Just days after South Africa scraps a plan to pay Russia billions of dollars to build a new nuclear power station, Moscow is pushing nuclear power in other African nations in a bid to win influence in the region.

The South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced earlier this week that he will not go ahead with plans to build a new Russian designed and engineered nuclear power station in the country. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan cited expense as the main reason not to go ahead with the project, as the plant would have been extremely expensive, South African media report.

The announcement comes after South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma was accused of making promises to Russia that were secured with hefty bribes. A judicial commission is currently looking into the far-reaching corruption charges of which the Russian nuclear deal was just a small part.

The South African energy minister Gwede Mantashe stressed that South Africa is still in the market for new nuclear energy providing it can be obtained more economically.

“The fact that we suspected corruption does not mean nuclear energy is irrelevant for South Africa today,” he said.

South African electricity generation has become outdated and unreliable. South Africa once used to export power to its neighbours, but its fleet of ageing coal-fired power stations and one nuclear plant at Koeberg near Cape Town are no longer able even to meet domestic demand and blackouts are common.

South Africa is experiencing a tough economic situation with slow growth and youth unemployment at more than 50%, which will likely mean that it will not be in a position to commit to new nuclear build for the foreseeable future.

Other African Nations Move to Embrace Nuclear Power

Rosatom, the Russian state company responsible for civilian as well as military uses of nuclear energy, is building a nuclear reactor in Egypt for $29 billion and has a deal with Nigeria to build another reactor as well as agreements for future collaboration with Uganda, Rwanda, and Ghana.

Rosatom, as well as the Koreans, French and Japanese are one of the companies in the world capable of exporting nuclear technology to the developing world.  As well as its plans in Africa, Rosatom is building a $13 billion light water reactor in Bangladesh.

However, critics argue that large nuclear power stations are unsuitable for developing countries and will not bring any benefits to their poorest people, who may not even have electricity in their homes.

The water-cooled reactors (VVERs) being built by Rosatom, whilst considered amongst the safest in the world, generate more than 1,000 megawatts and very few African countries have the grid infrastructure to distribute that amount of electricity.

Friends of the Earth said in a statement that large scale nuclear plants were unlikely to mean that more people in Africa would be able to get access to electricity.

“Access to energy is a basic human right and necessary for a dignified life. The majority of those denied this right live in Africa. However, the expansion of profit-driven nuclear energy in Africa would only exacerbate the problem,” the environmental NGO told the Guardian.

However, Rosatom defended its programme in Africa saying it provided a “customised solution” for each country.

“Despite the shortcoming s of the grid infrastructure in Africa, the latest generation of tried and tested large reactors are still the clear winners in most regions in terms of the cost of electricity,” the company said in a statement.

What is clear is that these projects are very profitable to the Russians and as well as bringing in billions of dollars creates jobs at home and builds decades-long relationships with the customer countries. 

Rosatom said last year that is has an order book worth £134 billion and has contracts to build 22 nuclear reactors in nine countries including in China, India, Finland, and Hungary.

Edward Cowley