Nuclear fuel rods bundle. Picture: SUPPLIED

Nuclear fuel rods bundle. Picture: SUPPLIED

The trouble with the debate on nuclear power, at least as a partial solution to SA’s energy needs, is that it isn’t really a debate. This week, energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson refused to provide a slew of documents relating to government’s planned nuclear programme, saying they were "privileged" and might "compromise the new build process".

Not many believed her. Instead, it only fuelled the impression of a government with something to hide — stoking the theory that shady contracts have already been struck between President Jacob Zuma and Russian companies to build reactors.

In the absence of facts, what we’re left with is only rumour and emotion.

As it stands, we just don’t have enough information to properly assess whether government would be doing the right thing in pushing for the nuclear option.

Instead of a proper cost-benefit analysis, we have Joemat-Pettersson, doing her best to get everyone to look the other way. It wouldn’t be the first time.

If government is serious about getting people to buy the need for nuclear energy, it needs to convince the country that the process is as transparent as possible. Without that, the suspicion threatens to turn the nuclear programme into the next arms deal.

For example, finance minister Pravin Gordhan has already vowed that SA won’t do anything it can’t afford when it comes to nuclear. So, to some, it is precisely Gordhan’s reluctance to plough ahead with nuclear that has led to him being targeted by the Hawks, with their trumped-up charges.

And all of these theories are being spun in the shadows, before we even get to weighing up the merits of nuclear power.

It’s a pity, because that’s the really worthwhile debate we should be having, with cogent arguments on both sides.

As it stands, opponents of nuclear power generation fall broadly into two camps.

The first opposing camp is concerned about environmental damage, safety and waste processing. Handled irresponsibly, this is a real concern — as the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima illustrate.

But if nuclear facilities are managed properly, and waste is handled responsibly, there should be little concern. Chernobyl, after all, was a failure of management — not any unpredictable danger in the technology. And when it comes to pollution, nuclear power is cleaner than coal-fired power.

The second opposing argument is that nuclear technology is prohibitively expensive. As the construction of SA’s 2010 World Cup stadiums illustrated, budgets for mega-engineering projects are self-inflating in a way that leaves many deeply uncomfortable.

This is especially so in a country battling to find the cash to pay the monthly welfare bill for the growing legion of unemployed.

Of course, it is deceptively easy to say we just can’t afford it — especially now that Eskom seems to be handling the demand well enough that it is even spurning a promising renewable energy programme.

But the fact is, present leaders have a duty to serve future governments. Governments ought to be taking a view over 30, 50 and 100 years. So the question becomes: would investment in nuclear power later be seen as wise and cost-effective? Thanks to the obfuscation from the likes of Joemat-Pettersson, these are not the questions being asked. Instead, kickbacks and donations are hinted at. SA’s bogeymen, the Guptas, are said to have their fingerprints all over the nuclear programme, despite there being no evidence.

Even board movements at state-owned companies are viewed through this prism of scepticism, with the implication that they’re being manipulated to ensure that a complex network of patronage is put in place to ensure politicians score maximum dosh.

What we haven’t seen is a dispassionate analysis of the need for such a programme by veteran civil servants who don’t stand to gain from any particular decision to award a contract one way or another. Instead, we have knowing looks when Zuma meets up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G20.

It may be unfortunate, but it’s the legacy of a Zuma administration pock-marked by abuse of state resources. In this context, anything less than maximum transparency is an affront to the country. We can afford that even less than the nuclear deal.