I spent a week in Moscow recently, attending the yearly Russian nuclear power conference and exhibition, Atomexpo 2017.
As chairperson of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, or Necsa, I was invited to chair the opening session of the conference, which was attended by hundreds of people from dozens of countries. Among the guests were nuclear scientists and engineers, as well as Cabinet Ministers and other dignitaries, plus the representatives of many companies.
One of the people who spoke while I was chairing the opening session was Russian State-owned nuclear company Rosatom CEO Alexey Likhachev. One of the comments he made was: “We have to address the issue of public confidence in nuclear power. We have to achieve public confidence. Then we have to move further than that to a state of public demand for nuclear.”
Nuclear power is the cleanest, safest, most cost effective and most environment-friendly power source that there is, no matter what anyone says.
Not one single person was killed or harmed by nuclear radiation at Fukushima, in Japan. In South Africa, the cheapest electricity that State-owned power utility Eskom has in its basket of electricity sources is nuclear power from Koeberg, in the Western Cape. So, the decisions of the technology experts and the political authorities half a century ago to build a nuclear power station near Cape Town were correct.
In the field of nuclear technology, South Africa is far more advanced now than it was half a century ago. Moscow is an interesting place. Bear in mind that Russia spent three-quarters of a century under Soviet conditions, mostly in a cold war state. One can now clearly see the old world and the new world merging. The US sanctions against Russia, imposed by the Obama administration, have hurt the Russians badly but they are taking the knock stoically. Food prices went up dramatically. I found the Russians extremely keen to import South African food. Our wine is held in extremely high regard, but it is very difficult to come by. I was really impressed when a Russian waitress at an upmarket place handed me a wine list and then added quietly: “I have some Simonsig from South Africa.”
The Russians also want to work with us in the field of nuclear power. I was also honoured by being invited to give a presentation at their primary nuclear research and development centre at Dubna, a nuclear development town about 130 km from Moscow.
It was at Dubna that two new atoms were discovered. The international scientific community named them Dubnium and Moscovium. For the technically minded, these atoms are numbered 105 and 115 on the Periodic Table.
During Soviet times, bright folks at school did not follow careers in accounting and law. A fellow told me that being a banker was considered a dead-end job for dropouts. But following science and engineering careers was considered the pinnacle of success. As a consequence, the Russians have very good science people. They built space rockets, have landed spacecraft on the moon and Venus, and much more. They build excellent nuclear reactors; their reactors are definitely serious contenders for construction in South Africa. When quizzed by journalists in Moscow, that is what I told them.
One very senior Russian fellow told me that the country’s banking and accountancy abilities are poor but that the whole world respects the banking and accountancy abilities of South Africa. He said to me that, together, our countries could achieve great things. A good observation to ponder.
South Africa is already working on nuclear technology cooperation with the Russians. Necsa has manufactured nuclear assemblies and exported them to Russia. The Russians openly envy our world dominance in nuclear medicine, and have asked if they can cooperate with us in these fields.
Contrary to what anyone has heard anywhere, South Africa has not made decisions about which new nuclear power station technology to acquire. There is a technological pathway which is followed through a convoluted path, during which all specialists from technology to law and economics have their say before a final decision is made.
A recent court decision struck down old nuclear technology exchange agreements between South Africa and various other countries, one dating from 2005. Energy Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi decided not to appeal the court, opting to update the agreements and then follow a careful approval process. The court decision did not disrupt the day-to-day work of hundreds of people involved in nuclear power development.
Clearly, South African specialists have already looked deeply into all available nuclear technologies in the world. We know exactly how all the world’s ‘nuclear engines’ work, so to speak. Decisions will be made professionally, by people who know the ‘engines’ and the economics of the entire system and situation.
I walked the streets of Moscow and found people to be extremely polite and helpful. I have become quite good at using the underground rail system, which is the largest and busiest in the world. That is an experience, because all station names are in Russian, as are maps, so one has to match the pattern of the words, because they are all in Cyrillic script. In my walking about, I found Moscow to be incredibly clean. Streets are even washed down during the night. Like in New York, the city that never sleeps, people are happily walking around at midnight and later. Admittedly, it is summer for them and there was a summer spirit in evidence.
South Africa is looking for mutual collaboration in the nuclear power field, not domination by any other country.