Long-time energy partners France and South Africa signed a series of bilateral agreements Wednesday on President Jacob Zuma’s final day of his state visit to Paris. The deals, which involve energy giants Areva and EDF, come just before South Africa is set to expand its nuclear programme.
French Energy Minister Eric Besson described the accords as placing energy “at the heart of the strategic partnership between France and South Africa,” at the signing ceremony. The details have yet to be outlined, but the message is clear: when it comes to South Africa’s need for nuclear, France has the edge.
Under one of the agreements, Areva will be assisting the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) - notably by training nuclear experts - extending the longstanding cooperation between the two countries to develop South Africa’s nuclear industry.
Areva Chief Executive Anne Lauvergeon told reporters on Wednesday: "Areva and South Africa have been partners for over 30 years and the group remains fully committed to supporting the country's nuclear ambitions."
South Africa says it will need 30 billion euros’ worth of extra energy, or six European Pressurised Reactors (EPR), in order to produce enough energy for the country in the future.
France cannot afford to miss its chance. The country’s energy industry lost out to South Korea over a €15bn contract to build atomic power stations in Abu Dhabi in 2009; has seen its nuclear projects in the US stalled by the financial crisis, and is yet to secure a definite deal for reactors in the UK.
“South Africa is an indispensable lifeline,” Yves Marignac, a French energy consultant who campaigns for renewable solutions, told FRANCE 24. “It seems to be the only country seriously willing to put out a tender [for the construction of nuclear reactors] next year, so the only one that can salvage the little credibility that France as an exporter still has.”
Renewable won’t do
South Africa has been holding off on any new nuclear initiatives recently due to financial constraints. But today, the booming nation risks running out of energy due to growing demand. The government says that production needs to be doubled by 2030, but has yet to detail exactly how.
“There are renewable options in South Africa” Francis Soler, editor in chief of Paris-based energy report, The Indian Ocean Newsletter, told FRANCE 24. “Solar is an obvious one in such a region… They could also look into hydroelectric, like in Mozambique. But these solutions do not produce enough energy to meet the demands of the current boom.”
Nuclear is not a perfect candidate either. “The problem is that South Africa needs a solution fast,” Soler explains. “Nuclear reactors take years to build. So they’re not convinced it’s the best solution.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, South African Energy Minister Dipuo Peters said that the country’s energy programme “had not yet been finalised”, and ruled out any exclusivity with France. “The invitation to tender (…) will be an international tender,” she said.
Nonetheless, the French government remained confident. Besson described cooperation between the two countries as “total and limitless”.
South Africa is expected to finalise its energy programme within the coming weeks.