President Jacob Zuma, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr Zuma was visiting Russia on Thursday to deepen bilateral ties between the Brics peers. Picture: GCIS
President Jacob Zuma, right, visits Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2013. Picture: GCIS

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s government has done many appalling things, but its latest decision to commit the country to spending R1-trillion on six or eight nuclear power stations at a time, when our economy is dangerously in decline, surely borders on lunacy.

We have just emerged from the first quarter of the year with an economic growth rate of 1.3% and an expanded unemployment rate of 37.8%, our worst to date. The Treasury is pretty well out of money and all three rating agencies are watching us closely. One might have thought it was time for a little austerity.

But no. The Zuma regime is throwing money around like a drunken sailor, while millions of our people are struggling to make ends meet. We have just seen it buy off the national director of public prosecutions, Mxolisi Nxasana, for a cool R17m. It looks like golden handshakes of this nature are now a continuing expense to the nation.

At the same time, auditor-general Kimi Makwetu reported that irregular, wasteful and unauthorised expenditure by municipalities over the past year came to R23bn. It is worth noting that the municipalities of the Western Cape were the only ones that did not feature in this shocking statistic.

This grotesque abuse of ratepayers’ money prompted former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, now in charge of co-operative governance, to remark that it stemmed from "pure greed" and that SA had a growing culture of nonpayment — an observation he might well have applied to Zuma’s refusal to cough up for Nkandla.

The saga of Eskom’s proposals to meet SA’s energy needs goes back 17 years, to when it was first announced that the electricity supplier would develop its own pebble bed reactor. That idea fell away and in 2006, Eskom put out tenders for nuclear plants.

The costs turned out to be significantly higher than Eskom had anticipated, so the matter was delayed while an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for the electricity industry was drafted. Tenders were put out again in 2008, but again the prices were higher than Eskom had anticipated.

A new IRP plan in 2010 still had nuclear generation as its centrepiece, but three years later, a revised plan was drawn up that moved away from that focus, regarding nuclear as too costly. By then a large number of new offshore oil and gas finds in Africa — Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Tanzania — offered a simpler and cheaper option. Coupled with solar panels and wind turbines, that looked to be a more practical solution.

Curiously, Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson has never tabled that 2013 revised plan in Parliament. Instead, Zuma headed off to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and announced some sort of agreement with him on the building of nuclear plants. Joemat-Pettersson followed him to Moscow — and it now appears that several potential nuclear tenders have been lined up.

So what has happened to the 2013 proposal that we should go the cheaper and quicker African gas route?

Instead of getting clarity on that critical issue, the deputy director-general for nuclear energy at the Department of Energy, Zizamele Mbambo, issued a statement the other day saying the number of nuclear plants the government proposed building might now be increased from six to eight, and further that some students had already been sent to Russia and China to train as nuclear experts.

This raises the question: has a decision already been taken about which we, the public, know nothing?

Mbambo said the bidding process would begin next month and the preferred bidder would be chosen in December, and that the nuclear power stations would be built between 2017 and 2030.

He said there was no price tag on the project thus far, as this would be determined during negotiations. "We have done an investigation in terms of costs. There are a lot of innovative models that are being investigated. The programme is financeable."

Ja, well, no fine. What we do know is that Eskom and the government have been notorious in underestimating the costs of building nuclear power stations ever since the first tenders were put out.

What we also know is that Eskom originally estimated that the coal-fired Medupi power station it is building near Lephalale in Limpopo would cost R60bn-R80bn. As it turns out, completion of the project is running five to seven years late, and the final cost is now reckoned to be somewhere between R155bn and R300bn.

If that is a measure of Eskom’s cost-estimation skills, we must expect a similar doubling or quadrupling of its R1-trillion estimate — the figure first mentioned by Zuma — for building the nuclear power stations. Or more, if eight are going to be built. The same goes for the completion time. Nuclear power stations are much bigger, more complex and expensive to build than are projects such as Medupi.

Such an escalation of an already astronomical projected cost would almost certainly be enough to bankrupt SA. Which is why I say the whole idea verges on the insane. It is nowhere near affordable. One has to ask the question: What on earth is going on here?

Given the administration’s record, I have to say that one dark thought occurs to me. Is this another feeding trough? A R1-trillion nuclear deal would make the arms deal look like petty theft. Is that the real reason the whole deal is going ahead in such secrecy, with no details of costs or favoured contractors being disclosed to the public?

It is sad that the Zuma administration’s record is so tarnished that such thoughts occur instinctively when contemplating its motives for a decision that makes neither economic nor political sense.

The only way this nuclear project could possibly be undertaken would be if Russia or China, which appear to be the favoured partners, were to provide the finance and themselves build, operate and maintain the power stations over time — which is what I suspect Zuma has in mind.

But beware. That would amount to such a foreign entity virtually owning the power stations, giving them an enormous hold over our country. A new form of colonialism.

It would also mean that such a foreign entity would have to charge us, the electricity consumers, a rate high enough to generate a return on its enormous investment. The amount would be punitive, leading to the acceleration of a phenomenon already beginning to show itself in this country as a result of Eskom’s high rates. Individuals and companies that could afford it would start installing their own power generating plants, so forcing the foreign entity to hike its rates even higher to maintain its return on investment.

The result, as seems to be the case with just about everything the Zuma administration does, is that it would be the poor who would suffer the most.

• Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail