Despite rumours that Russia was in the lead to take the deal, Nuclear energy regulators in South Africa and China have signed a technical cooperation agreement as Africa’s most industrialised economy presses forward with controversial plans to build eight new nuclear reactors.

According to the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR, the deal was signed last week in Beijing, and includes licensing procedures, vendor inspections, inspector training and joint inspections and technical support.

China is competing with Russia, France, the United States and South Korea for the South African nuclear power plant construction programme, which is worth up to $50bn.

“Bilateral cooperation arrangements such as these serve as a valuable mechanism for ensuring that the NNR’s regulatory practices are … benchmarked against the best current standards and practices as applied internationally within the nuclear industry,” NNR’s chief executive officer Bismark Tyobeka said in a statement.

The two countries signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement a year ago, which Pretoria said was in preparation for a “possible” utilisation of Chinese nuclear technology in the country. Similar agreements have been signed with the other bidders.

South Africa has one nuclear power station but relies heavily on coal for electricity generation. The new reactors are expected to add 9,600 megawatts — or nearly a third of the country’s generating capacity of 30,000 MW — with the first unit to be ready in 2023. Power shortages have hobbled South Africa’s economic growth, but the plan to expand nuclear energy production has come under fire from critics over environmental concerns and fears that the cost could cripple the economy.

China today has 27 nuclear power reactors in commercial operation with another 25 under construction. The building of yet another 22 will soon start and even more are in the planning stage.