Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the subject of a nuclear deal at a private meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Brics summit in Johannesburg on Thursday, but his host said Pretoria could not sign such a deal for now.
Russian state firm Rosatom was one of the front runners for a project to dramatically increase SA’s nuclear power-generating capacity championed by former president Jacob Zuma. Ramaphosa has put nuclear expansion on the back burner since taking office in February, saying it was too expensive. He has focused instead on pledges to revive the economy and to crack down on corruption.
"While we remain committed to an energy mix that includes nuclear, SA is not yet at the point where it is able to sign on the dotted line," Ramaphosa’s spokeswoman, Khusela Diko, said about the meeting between Putin and Ramaphosa.
Hours earlier, ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile said that SA would not rush into major nuclear investments but that it was still open to future deals with Russia.
"Once we are clear that this is affordable for us to do, we are open for business, including with Russia," said Mashatile on the sidelines of a three-day Brics summit. "I think the approach we will take is to avoid the Big Bang approach.
"The initial intervention was that we would do close to 10,000MW.... It’s unaffordable."
Mashatile also said the ANC wanted greater private investment in struggling state-owned power utility Eskom, which swung to a loss for the year to end-March.
Russia wants to turn nuclear energy into a major export industry. It has signed agreements with African countries with no nuclear tradition, including Rwanda and Zambia, and is set to build a large nuclear plant in Egypt.
Rosatom was "still interested" in helping SA expand its nuclear capacity, a Rosatom executive told Reuters.
"If there is a place for nuclear energy in the energy mix, we are happy to co-operate.
"We are happy to follow each and every procedure that will be communicated to us by the South African government," said Dmitry Shornikov, Rosatom’s CEO for Central and Southern Africa.
Rosatom on Thursday signed a separate agreement with South African state nuclear firm Necsa to explore joint production of nuclear medicines and other ways of harnessing nuclear technology, a statement from the two firms showed.
The agreement, which is nonbinding, is a further sign that Rosatom is keen to cement its position on the continent.
SA operates Africa’s only nuclear power plant, with an installed capacity of 1,900MW.
The nuclear expansion deal backed by Zuma envisaged adding an additional 9,600MW, but ratings agencies cited the project as a cause for concern given SA’s recurring budget deficits and ballooning public debt.