An independent in depth report on the Fukushima nuclear disaster commissioned by the Japanese parliament was released in July 2012, and it comes to some very important conclusions. As Eskom attempts to get approval to build three more nuclear plants along the southern coast, South Africa should be looking very closely at this report to see if there are lessons we should learn from it.
The earthquake or the tsunami?
The nuclear industry has repeatedly made the claim that the Fukushima Daiichi reactors survived the earthquake, but it was the ‘unexpected’ size of the tsunami that caused all the problems. Some have gone so far as to make the somewhat ridiculous claim that Fukushima is a good example of the safety of nuclear plants, since the plant suffered no major damage from the earthquake itself, and was safely shut down.
This report finally exposes that for the lie that it was: “We conclude that TEPCO was too quick to cite the tsunami as the cause of the nuclear accident and deny that the earthquake caused any damage.” Even the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA),
which promotes the use of nuclear power, has this to say in its Fukushima status report of 27 July 2012: “Technically, contrary to the previous reports that identified the tsunami as the cause of major damage, there is evidence that leads to a conclusion that the earthquake might have also caused damage, including a potential small-break loss of coolant accident;”
From this we can learn two things. Firstly, that the nuclear industry is likely to misrepresent the truth when it comes to leaks and meltdowns – although that is nothing new. Secondly, nuclear plants are at risk of meltdown from an earthquake, and even the best attempts of engineers to ‘earthquake-proof” a nuclear plant are not infallible.
What about Koeberg?
Residents of Cape Town are probably aware that there is a seismic fault in Milnerton, which last caused a massive earthquake in the early 1800’s. There were no instruments at the time, so we don’t know how strong it was. The most recent powerful earthquake was in 1969 near Ceres, which registered 6.3 on the Richter scale. Since then there have been many tremors, with the latest one recorded in 2009.
Because it has not been studied sufficiently, the exact position of the fault is not known, but it is thought to be about 8km from the Koeberg nuclear plant on land, and possibly about 7km out sea. Most disturbing of all, is the statement by consultants hired by Eskom to study the risk of an earthquake at Koeberg: “the results presented were compiled using a methodology that no longer conforms to international best practice“. They add that Eskom has taken it “upon itself to undertake a new PSHA [earthquake risk assesment], following an approach corresponding to the latest international best practice“. This new study was scheduled to start in 2009, but was “postponed due to financial constraints“.
What we can only hope Eskom has learned from the report is that earthquakes can cause nuclear reactors to melt down, and that it is not prudent to delay studying the risks of this happening due to ‘financial constraints’, while simultaneously embarking on the construction of new nuclear plants at a cost R300 billion or more.
In Japan they use the phrase ‘the nuclear village’ to refer to the small group of people qualified to work at a high level in the nuclear field. Some of these people have moved between the nuclear regulator, the government, and the operator TEPCO, and were at times called on to ‘regulate’ their previous, or perhaps next, boss. This all led to a cosy relationship between the regulator and TEPCO.
The report is particluarly damming in this regard: The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties.”
What about our regulator?
In South Africa, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) has the task of regulating, monitoring, and licensing nuclear installations in South Africa, with the aim to “provide for the protection of persons, property and the environment against nuclear damage …” [NNR Act of 1999].
Is the NNR up to the job? The NNR chief executive officer (CEO) Boyce Mkhize told parliament in March 2012 “You talk of R300 billion worth of infrastructural development in the nuclear space, but you have a Mickey Mouse regulator that is not able to achieve even a fraction of the safety considerations it has to undertake.”
This is not a new problem. Back in 2007, then CEO Maurice Magugumela told parliament that “a surplus of nearly R19m at the 2006/7 year-end was mainly caused by unfilled vacancies in the National Nuclear Regulator’s office.”
Clearly, the NNR is not up to the job.
A second problem is that the NNR is responsible to the minister of energy. This is the same minister who is energetically promoting nuclear power, which leads to a conflict of interest. The NNR should be responsible to the Minister of the Environment, which means that the NNR Act needs to be amended.
The Fukushima report highlights regulatory problems as a cause of the extent of the disaster. The same problems currently exist in South Africa, and so far, these problems have not been acknowledged, let alone addressed. With Africa’s only nuclear plant sitting near a major city, and near a fault line, South Africa has so far failed to learn from the experiences at Fukushima.