Post Event Article: Cap40 Business Wednesday - January 2016

Exploring the nature of the relationship between nuclear crisis communicators and the media in South Africa

                            
tubeembedSome background

Some background

There has been growing interest, in South Africa and elsewhere, in the country’s ongoing programme to increase its nuclear energy capability. The nuclear new build procurement process was begun in 2008 when government issued an invitation for bids from interested nuclear vendors. American Westinghouse and French Areva NP were the only two companies that participated in the first round of the bidding process. At the time, Thabo Mbeki was President of South Africa and Nicholas Sarkozy was President of France. In the USA, G.W. Bush was President. But the relationship between Thabo Mbeki and Nicholas Sarkozy was, somewhat, warmer.

For purely party political reasons, Thabo Mbeki was recalled from his position a mere few days before the winning bid was announced, in September 2008. With his removal from office, an interim administration, led by Kgalema Motlanthe – who had until then been the ruling ANC’s Secretary-General – was put in place to prepare for national elections within six months.  

Mbeki’s removal from office was soon followed by the global economic meltdown, which also affected South Africa and forced the government to shelf its nuclear new build process, as it would no longer be affordable.

In 2010, an Integrated Resources Plan (IRP 2010-2030) was completed and gazetted as the country’s blueprint for energy planning. This plan, mirrored against the National Development Plan (NDP), which forecasted economic growth at 5.4% per annum, recommended that South Africa invest in an additional 9.6GW of nuclear new build. This would add to existing nuclear capacity provided by Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant, located just outside Cape Town. The construction of Koeberg was begun in the second half of the 1970s and completed in 1982, when it was commissioned. It is, to date, the only nuclear power plant in Africa.

Communicating the New Build Procurement Process

Despite the decline in annual economic growth and energy demand, and despite a 2013 update to the IRP (it has to be updated every three years) – which recommended a lesser nuclear energy procurement than the previous 9.6GW - the South African government chose to disregard the 2013 update - which, strangely, was never gazetted - and opted to base its nuclear procurement intentions on a 9.6GW requirement, as per the earlier version of the IRP. 

In the interim period, a number of things have changed:

  1. The number of interested nuclear vendors has brown from two to five. Russia, China, and South Korea are the firm additional players;
  2. There has been a rapprochement between the Jacob Zuma-led South African government and the Vladimir Putin-led Russian government;
  3. There has been growth in the number of individuals and organisations (local and global) who, for various reasons, are opposed to the nuclear new build procurement process. The reasons for this opposition range from: distrust that government will run a clean, transparent, and corruption-free process; fear of nuclear power for safety reasons (with repeated references to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the 2011 Fukushima accident, etc.); issues of affordability (government has not been forthcoming with the financial modeling of the procurement process); etc.
  4. Growth in the Renewable Energy sector; there is increased push in the anti-nuclear lobby for government to increase the renewable energy component of the IRP at the expense of the nuclear energy component;
  5. The general public is increasingly interested to see government demonstrate the rationale for its nuclear preference and how it will benefit South Africans, especially in as far as jobs and business opportunities are concerned.    

Given all of the above, people who are tasked with communicating on behalf of government have to find good ways to communicate related government messages to various stakeholder groups. The media is an important group in all of this, as the nature of the relationship between government communicators and the media in general, and practitioners: editors, journalists, freelance writers, bloggers, etc., will determine the extent to which government messages are covered in the media and, eventually, interpreted by the public and other stakeholders. If badly communicated and rejected, there could be risk of general public rejection and possible social unrest, which would not be good for the country.

The Cap40 seminar hosted to discuss this topic was based on an ongoing PhD study investigating approaches adopted by nuclear crisis communicators in integrating media as a tool and/ strategic partner when communicating matters related to nuclear energy.

As part of their communications task, nuclear crises communicators are expected, amongst others, to explain the rationale for public investment in nuclear energy; transparently communicate government’s procurement processes in this regard; as well as generally educate and inform stakeholders about relevant nuclear issues.

Solly MOENG

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