Viktor Polikarpov. PICTURE: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Viktor Polikarpov. PICTURE: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

ROSATOM, the state-owned Russian nuclear company, spent on Thursday afternoon trying to disown its earlier claim of having been awarded a contract to build SA’s proposed fleet of power stations.

The company blamed a poor translation for its late September statement in which, quoting South African government officials, it said it had been granted the right to build a fleet of nuclear power stations for SA.

The news that Russia would build nuclear power stations came as a surprise as no announcement had been made by the government that it had begun any tender process to procure the 9.6GW it said it would be actively seeking.

"The wording (in the statement) from Rosatom wasn’t well chosen," said Viktor Polikarpov, regional vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa. "We have to admit that we worded the statement wrongly. It was lost in translation (from the original Russian)."

In this statement Rosatom quoted Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson. After going to ground and for days being unavailable to confirm the Rosatom claim, the Department of Energy eventually released a statement on its website, which was almost identical to Rosatom’s "translated" statement.

Following this, the department said the statement in no way confirmed SA had reached a deal with Russia. The agreement only envisioned possible future co-operation on nuclear energy issues.

The department’s head of the nuclear energy programme, Zizamele Mbambo, told a media briefing at the time that the government would sign similar agreements with other interested bidding countries.

He said the government might choose not to put the procurement out to tender. According to South African law, any government infrastructure procurement must be put out to competitive tender before a licence to build can be issued.

When reached on his cellphone yesterday to clarify whether South African officials had written the statement, or the Russian company had penned it, Mr Mbambo declined to give an outright answer.

"We’ve clarified this matter over and over, and issued many statements on the matter. I’m not sure what you want me to say now."

Speaking at the offices of Magna Carta, a public relations firm recently retained by Rosatom, Mr Polikarpov said there was "nothing attached to any specific decision that has been made. There is nothing concrete, believe me," he said.

The company had nothing to hide. "We are open, we are being transparent because we want to be recognised as reliable partners. We don’t have a deal yet," he said.

When Business Day asked for a copy of the co-operation agreement, Mr Polikarpov said the document "is classified ... it is not available for public consumption".

Mr Polikarpov was asked how Rosatom arrived at the $50bn price estimate for the project. After much discussion in Russian with Alex Kirillov, head of marketing in SA, he said this was the estimated cost of Rosatom’s plants.

"Believe me, we have nothing to hide," said Mr Polikarpov. "Had the deal been signed already, I would not be here. I would be sitting comfortably at home."

Rosatom had merely stepped up its marketing campaign and was trying to get noticed as it was competing for a possible deal once procurement went ahead. "SA has to follow its procurement processes first."

Rosatom will apply for a $50bn loan from the Russian government if SA chooses a build, own and operate model, he said.

Rosatom is trying to make it affordable for SA to build a nuclear fleet, and will bring in its bid at close to $6,500/MW, as the Department of Energy had indicated it would not be able to afford anything more expensive, said Mr Polikarpov.