Parliament makes tired promises to listen to civil society and the Minister does not deliver

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Kate Davies outside Parliament. Kate Davies stood outside Parliament during the Energy Portfolio Committee Meeting on the 23 February.

Despite hopes that the Energy Portfolio Committee Meeting in Parliament on 23 February would bring some clarity from our Minister of Energy on nuclear, the meeting continued in the same vein as that held a week earlier.

Last week Parliament had valiantly attempted to hold the Minister of Energy to account, but the Minister side-stepped reporting back by suggesting the Committee could hear her response to SONA in the National Chamber. The meeting, dubbed a “non-meeting” by some MPs, reconvened this week. This time item one of the agenda took place…sort of.

The Minister launched into an hour plus speech on some of the SONA issues, including justifying nuclear power because renewables “can’t do baseload”. The Minister spoke about how the IPP office is now expanding its mandate to include offshore gas (which she labelled a “game-changer” – the same words used by Zuma in the 2014 SONA to introduce shale gas extraction), and is going to do the nuclear procurement. The Minister was unable to release a costing for nuclear, and we eagerly await her estimate.

After her speech, there were many questions; some were statements, others protestations of nuclear being the only way forward, and a few were of real interest. The Minister was asked to respond, which she failed to do adequately.  She spoke of things that no-one had asked questions about, and failed to provide any meaningful response to questions that had been asked.

The Minister spoke about the need for nuclear because of the drought, arguing the considerable amount of water used by coal-fired stations – however she introduces this curious argument after years of investment in the construction of the much delayed and over-budget Medupi and Kusile coal-fired plants. Of course, regarding the nuclear value chain, millions of litres of scarce water would be needed – and contaminated – for the extraction of uranium in the water-scarce Karoo.

By lunchtime the Minister had been speaking for a further 40 minutes, but still failed to address the questions. MP’s then complained that their questions had not been answered and the Minister was asked to return on another day to provide answers.

The Chairperson reiterated a call he had made months ago, that this issue needed public hearings, and now was the time to go ahead with them. The Chair also reiterated the SONA statement that the nuclear build would go ahead at the pace and extent it was affordable, which might mean it does not go ahead at all.

There was also a question for the Auditor General’s office: Is it prudent expenditure for the Minister to have appointed 4 (or more) additional staff, all of whom are nuclear experts, and to have launched a nuclear training and bursary scheme, without having checked if any nuclear build will be affordable for the country?

One MP spoke of having seen a draft IRP with an increased amount of nuclear in it, up to 44GW. The Minister said she didn’t want to share draft plans in case it upset people. As much as investors are going to be taken aback at indications of further nuclear proceedings, it is ordinary people on the street who are going to revolt when their already increasing electricity prices soar due to nuclear electricity. Of course, the Minister won’t be in office to account for her actions then, so if we don’t stop her now, who will we hold to account?

We await Minister Gordhan’s budget speech with interest!

*Written by Liz McDaid