Mismanagement of megaprojects is why nuclear plan should be opposed via Rand Daily Mail

SA’s huge nuclear plan should be opposed not because it’s intrinsically a bad idea, but because all megaprojects tend to fail

South Africa is about to embark on a huge project to build a set of nuclear power stations, which will be an order of magnitude larger than anything the country has ever attempted.

The exact size, participants, magnitude and so on are not known, but guesstimates put the cost between R600-billion and R1-trillion. I’m adamantly, vociferously against the project. I should say this is not necessarily the position of the Financial Mail, and it is a matter of fierce debate in our newsroom, and of course in SA as a whole.

Let me begin by arguing against myself. There are four good arguments in favour. First, SA needs the power. Second, this would constitute crucial base-load power. Third, SA has an existing nuclear power plant which has served the country well in general, and produces the cheapest power in the grid now that the plant costs have been amortised. And fourth, SA’s power is extremely dirty, and nuclear is, comparatively, environmentally friendly.

The counter-argument really applies not only to nuclear projects but to all megaprojects around the world. New research demonstrates not only that megaprojects generally miss their targets, but do so regularly and by margins that make your hair stand on end.

Recently, Stanford economist Russ Roberts interviewed on his radio show the leading researcher globally on mega-projects, a man with a genuinely unpronounceable name — Bent Flyvbjerg — from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.


Flyvbjerg says this is an absurd deliberate myopia; don’t look at the numbers in case they scare you.

These ideas are so obvious, so visible and so typical, even to us here in SA. Remember when the arms deal was going to cost, at most, R3-billion? Eventually we paid around R30bn, and now we have jets we never use.

So when the cost estimates of the nuclear plants come in, do yourself a favour. Multiply that by, say, five — we don’t want to be extreme here. Work out what that does to electricity prices. And run for the hills.

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