KwaZulu-Natal could be home to a nuclear power plant as soon as 2023 as government surges ahead with its mega nuclear power plan.

That’s either very good or very bad news, depending on which side of the fence you sit. For those prepared to keep the lights on at any cost, deputy director general for nuclear energy, Zizamele Mbambo’s message that the country’s first new nuclear power station would come on line in eight years’ time maps a way out of the oppressing energy crisis.

For those who are highly sceptical of nuclear power, the moral of the story is that government has a will and is already planning the way.

At a media briefing at Zimbali on July 14, Mbambo, detailed tangible progress, stating that the procurement process would begin during the second quarter of the 2015 financial year – which starts this month – and be completed by the end of the same financial year with a strategic partner or partners likely to be announced early in 2016.

Overall, government intends building between six and eight new nuclear power stations by 2029. Nuclear will provide 23% of the country’s energy by 2030.

Provinces that have already been earmarked for these multi-billion rand nuclear new builds  are KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern, Northern and Western Cape. He said scoping was underway for others with government working to identify where exactly where affordable electricity and industrialisation were needed most.

The briefing did cover the technological, legal and logistical progress that will inch government towards realising its nuclear new build programme. So far, government has finalised its contracting strategy, is reviewing key legislation to address fundamental safety principles and is well on the way to completing its financing arrangements amongst other things.

When quizzed on government’s precise budget and funding model for the new build, Mbambo skirted around the issue. He would not put a price on the programme citing a problem that is common to many big infrastructure projects – one cannot price something until the bids have been submitted and approved.

He also side stepped how government intended financing a big ticket programme that is expected to come in at more than R1 trillion! What independent studies have indicated to government, however, is that its new build programme is both fundable and of benefit to the economy in terms of job creation, industrialisation and just getting existing companies back on stream sans load shedding.

Government did not intend discussing money for strategic reasons, one being that it had not yet fully tested the market, he said.

Then came the thorny issue of which country is ahead of the pack when it comes to being the preferred partner in South Africa’s nuclear race. A recent inter-governmental agreement signed with Russia following the latest BRICS meeting has set tongues wagging – but Mbambo stressed that no deals were on the table as the procurement process was yet to officially begin.

To date, government has signed agreements with China, France, Russia, the USA and South Korea and is negotiating with Canada and Japan. Each agreement lays the foundation for co-operation, trade and exchange of nuclear technology as well as procurement. Each also focuses on individual vendors’ capabilities as well as South Africa’s determination to take on partners rather than operators in order to be truly self-sufficient.

“We won’t re-invent this wheel, but we will do it the South African way,” declared Phumzile Tshelane, head of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa). He also admitted that the South African economy was hungry for affordable base load power and would only function properly once this was available.

In addition, he said, by 2022, some of Eskom’s coal fired power stations would be retired and, while government intended implementing an energy mix that included solar, wind and hydroelectric power,  the only true option for replacing these would be nuclear power.

What is most critical for the South African private sector which is still watching from the sidelines is just how much local business stands to benefit. Considerably, according to Mbambo, who stresses that partnerships will be strongly slanted towards localisation and local skills development all in aid of ensuring that South Africa achieves its goal of being completely self-sufficient in the nuclear value chain in the long term.

Without the educational and operational skills, this country would be dead in the water which explains why each inter-governmental agreement provides for locals to be shipped off to learn how to work in the nuclear domain.  Necsa has signed a memorandum of understanding with Electricity de France on skills development that could even see the establishment of a nuclear campus in South Africa.

More importantly, in addition to job creation during the construction of these power plants, government is keen to factor manufacturing equipment into its overall industrialisation strategy with the ultimate aim of creating products and technology that can be exported sustainably throughout the world.

Tshelane explained that, for most nuclear turnkey projects, localisation levels of 30 to 35% were attainable – however, as South Africa’s are not turnkey projects, the aim was to achieve localisation of around 80% in just over 10 years.

“Government remains committed to ensuring energy security for the country through the roll out of the nuclear new build programme as an integral part of the energy mix. It remains committed to ensuring a reliable and sustainable electricity supply as part of mitigating the risk of carbon emissions. The nuclear new build programme will enable the country to create jobs, develop skills, create industries and catapult the country into a knowledge economy,” Mbambo concluded.

What he also promised is probably what is at the forefront of most South Africans’ minds – government is committed to a procurement process that is in line with the country’s legislation and policies and one that will be both fair and transparent.

The proof will be in the delivery over the next eight years.