Tina Joemat-Pettersson. Picture: FLICKR
Tina Joemat-Pettersson. Picture: FLICKR

THE key figure in the government’s bid to secure a 9.6GW nuclear energy programme, nuclear physicist Senti Thobejane, has been fired by Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, raising new questions on the future of the project.

Mr Thobejane, who was nuclear adviser to Ms Joemat-Pettersson, also advised President Jacob Zuma, which, with his knowledge and skills, placed him in a unique position to broker the large nuclear procurement, of which Mr Zuma has been an enthusiastic supporter.

He was the key figure in discussions with vendor countries and played a central role in the Cabinet’s energy security sub-committee, which is led by Mr Zuma himself.

His sudden departure comes as the Treasury is finally getting to grips with the feasibility of the nuclear procurement, which until recently had been kept under wraps by the Department of Energy. The department has repeatedly assured Parliament and the public that the procurement of 9.6GW of nuclear energy was affordable and viable. However, it has refused to make public the studies which it says support this.

The reasons for the termination of Mr Thobejane’s contract are not publicly known. However, he had repeatedly clashed with Ms Joemat-Pettersson who had resisted attempts to have him installed as her head of department.

Ms Joemat-Pettersson, who was in Austria attending a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency was not available for comment.

However, aside from Mr Thobejane’s departure there are other signs that the programme may be losing momentum. Six weeks ago Ms Joemat-Pettersson denied that the government had ever said it would build 9.6GW of nuclear power, describing the number as "a thumb-suck".

This follows her insistence on several occasions, including in both budget speeches over the past two years, that the government would build 9.6GW of nuclear power. Similar assertions were made by Mr Zuma in his state of the nation address.

But while it appears that Ms Joemat-Pettersson may compromise on the scale of the nuclear project in the short term, in the long term her department is pushing for a greater share of nuclear energy in the future.

A new integrated resource plan which projects energy demand for the next 30 years and plans the future energy mix is being drafted by her department. Officials say that it is likely to include a higher share for nuclear energy than the 9.6GW already planned. This is in order to meet climate mitigation targets, they argue.

In reply to questions submitted by Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene said on Monday that the Treasury was still in the process of assessing both the financial costs and economic effects of the nuclear build programme.

"This work is currently not finalised yet as there is an interactive process under way with the Department of Energy on the scale of the programme and possible financing scenarios that have a bearing on the modelling work and its results. The recommendations from this work are expected to be submitted to the Cabinet as soon as the work is completed," said Mr Nene.