By Alexander Winning
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the subject of a nuclear deal at a private meeting with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, but his host said Pretoria could not sign such a deal for now.
Russian state firm Rosatom was one of the front runners for a project to dramatically increase South Africa's nuclear power-generating capacity championed by former president Jacob Zuma.
Ramaphosa has put nuclear expansion on the back burner since taking office in February, saying it is too expensive, and has focused instead on pledges to revive the economy and crack down on corruption.
"While we remain committed to an energy mix that includes nuclear, South Africa is not yet at the point where it is able to sign on the dotted line," Ramaphosa's spokeswoman Khusela Diko said about the meeting between Putin and Ramaphosa.
Hours earlier, one of the top six officials in South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) had said that Pretoria would not rush into major nuclear investments but that it was still open to future deals with Russia.
"Once we are clear that this is affordable for us to do, we are open for business including with Russia," ANC Treasurer General Paul Mashatile said.
He spoke on the sidelines of a three-day BRICS summit attended by the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
"I think the approach we will take is to avoid the Big Bang approach. The initial intervention was that we would do close to 10,000 megawatts (MW). ... It's unaffordable," he said.
Mashatile also said the ANC wanted greater private investment in struggling state-owned power utility Eskom, which swung to a loss for the year to end-March.
ROSATOM STILL KEEN
Russia wants to turn nuclear energy into a major export industry. It has signed agreements with African countries with no nuclear tradition, including Rwanda and Zambia, and is set to build a large nuclear plant in Egypt.
Rosatom is "still interested" in helping South Africa expand its nuclear capacity, a Rosatom executive told Reuters.
"If there is a place for nuclear energy in the energy mix, we are happy to cooperate. We are happy to follow each and every procedure that will be communicated to us by the South African government," said Dmitry Shornikov, Rosatom's chief executive for central and southern Africa.
Rosatom on Thursday signed a separate agreement with South African state nuclear firm Necsa to explore joint production of nuclear medicines and other ways of harnessing nuclear technology, a statement from the two firms showed.
The agreement, which is non-binding, is a further sign that Rosatom is keen to cement its position on the African continent.
South Africa currently operates Africa's only nuclear power plant, with an installed capacity of around 1,900 MW.
The nuclear expansion deal backed by Zuma envisaged adding an additional 9,600 MW, but ratings agencies cited the project as a cause for concern given the country's recurring budget deficits and ballooning public debt.
(Editing by James Macharia and Elaine Hardcastle)