Vladimir Putin in South Africa
Russian President Vladimir Putin walks away from a signpost after posing for photographs at Cape Point, south of Cape Town, Sept. 6, 2006. Reuters/Howard Burditt

As South Africa pursues ambitious plans to fulfill more of its energy needs with nuclear power, the search for business partners has officials looking north -- far north. Russia is keen to get involved in South Africa's nuclear industry, and this week Rosatom, Moscow's state-owned nuclear power corporation, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with South Africa's North-West University, which is at the forefront of nuclear engineering education. The agreement will see Rosatom-linked professionals share their expertise with North-West students and professors.

"We are pleased to announce the signing of the MoU with our Russian colleagues," said North-West Professor Herman van Schalkwyk, according to SouthAfrica.info. "We recognize that nuclear energy remains an important option for South Africa. The intention is to explore the potential for future collaboration, ranging from education to specific technical projects in nuclear engineering, hydrogen technologies, energy, etc."

At first glance, these partners may seem like strange bedfellows. Russia's interest in the African continent has waned considerably since the days of the Soviet Union, when Moscow vied with Western powers for spheres of influence on the resource-rich continent. Since then, Africa has all but fallen off the Kremlin's radar. It is still seen as a market for weapons, one of Russia's most important exports, and several state-owned companies have a stake in various sectors across the continent. But their presence remains quite small -- all told, Africa accounted for just 1 percent of Russia's total international trade in 2010.

A new focus on diversified business ties may be in the cards now, but Russia cannot hope to compete against economic superpowers like China, the European Union and the United States, all of whom have gotten a huge head start in the battle for access to Africa's fast-growing markets.

But when it comes to nuclear power, Russia has decades of experience -- its first commercial plants came online in 1963 -- and is keen to get its foot in the door. South Africa is already a nuclear power pioneer in its own right; its first commercial plant became operational in 1984. It now has two functioning nuclear plants generating just over 5 percent of its electricity. The country is still heavily dependent on coal, but nuclear power factors heavily into its plans to increase energy output. Demand has been creeping up to dangerous levels, threatening to exceed South Africa's total power generation capacity of about 40,000 MW.

Meanwhile, Russia has 33 active nuclear facilities, for a total capacity of 23,643 MW of electricity last year according to the International Atomic Energy Association, and Moscow has plans to ramp up nuclear power production by 50 percent by 2020. But those numbers are actually less than impressive -- indeed, other countries, like the United States and Japan, have Russia beat in terms of total nuclear power generation. And a slew of European states, including France and Lithuania, get a much higher percentage of their total energy output from nuclear power than does Russia.

But if Moscow moves proactively, as it appears to be doing with the North-West agreement, it could very well position itself to be at the forefront of South Africa's burgeoning nuclear power industry. That, in turn, would recommend it well to a host of other African countries -- including Ghana, Kenya and Senegal -- that are also exploring nuclear options of their own.

Unlike much of the West, Russia is relatively unburdened by colonial history and not highly dependent on Africa's oil. In that sense, Moscow's long absence from the African continent gives it something of a clean slate -- and an early entry into South Africa's nuclear energy industry could become a strong foundation for a thriving business relationship.