On 11 October 2017 the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) issued an authorisation to Eskom for a second nuclear power plant at Koeberg, 28km north of Cape Town City centre. It came with a surprise. The Department also authorised the “construction of facilities or infrastructure, including associated structures or infrastructure for … disposal of nuclear fuels, radioactive products and waste.”
Waste disposal not part of project…
You would have been surprised if you had studied the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) because it gave the impression this was not about waste disposal.
On page 40 of chapter 4 (Project Description) it says “The producers of spent fuel are required to store the HLW [high level waste] at the plant until a national policy surrounding the disposal of nuclear waste is finalised.” Storage is not disposal.
On page 54, it says “However, a full EIA will have to be undertaken prior to the storage
and/ or disposal of hazardous waste.” Here again the EIR seems to make it clear that the disposal of nuclear waste is not covered.
Despite this, the original application by Eskom in 2007 and the final authorisation by the DEA in 2017 both explicitly include nuclear waste disposal.
The future of Cape Town…
Koeberg started operating in 1985, and with a 40 year planned lifetime, was scheduled to be shut down in 2025. All nuclear waste was to be removed from the site. This would have allowed Cape Town to expand to the north, without concerns about impractical evacuation plans around a nuclear site.
If additional nuclear plants are built in South Africa in the future, it is likely that the high level waste from those plants will be transported by road to the dump site at Koeberg. This introduces additional risks in terms of spillage due to either road accident or terrorist attack.
High level nuclear waste contains plutonium, which is not only chemically the most poisonous known element, it also emits dangerous radiation for thousands of years. That means Cape Town will have to have an evacuation plan in place for thousands of years.
What could go wrong…?
The waste is dangerous for millennia, and no structure built by mankind has survived in tact for that length of time. This means it is difficult to design any structure that we know will contain the radiation safely for as long as is required. Any waste dump will be a huge burden for future generations both in terms of costs and anxiety.
One thing is for sure – it will be very expensive. And since there is no profit in finalising a disposal solution, it will be tempting to just leave it, as has happened in other places such as Hanford in the USA and Sellafield in England.
So far, no design has even been proposed for a South African high level waste disposal site. The words ‘geological disposal’ have been mentioned in the EIR, which means digging a deep hole and dropping the waste into it. Since Koeberg is close to the shore, it is likely that over the years seawater would find its way into any holes. This means metal structures would corrode away over time. Concrete also has a limited lifetime, and starts to crumble after a few hundred years. Many concrete structures have to be demolished after just tens of years due to deterioration. And example was the cooling towers in Athlone, which became dangerous after 7o years.
If any radiation does leak into the rock, it is not known what the consequences would be. Obviously there is the risk that ground water would become contaminated with radioactive substances, and that could mean water from boreholes in the area might become radioactive. This means the water becomes unusable, but how would this be detected? How many people monitor their borehole water for radioactivity?
Cape Town may become more dependant on groundwater for household use as the years go by. It would be sad if this water become unusable, and tragic if radioactive water was used before the radiation was detected.
In the rest of the world?
So far, no final high level waste repository has been built anywhere in the world. Sweden is perhaps the frontrunner, and they only started the licence application process in September 2017, after 30 years of research into various disposal options.
In Germany, a third of the barrels used to store waste at the Brunsbüttel site were found to be damaged. “Some of the containers are so deformed that they can no longer be moved, as they no longer fit into the robotic gripping arms installed at the site, the inspectors reported.”
In the USA, the Yucca mountain disposal site has been a disaster. Fifteen years after construction started, and with $11 billion spent so far, not one gram of waste has been disposed of there to date.
Back in the RSA…
But here in South Africa, the Department of Environmental Affairs has decided that a high level waste repository at Koeberg will have an acceptably low impact on the environment. And that is after no research into isolation technologies, burial location or depth, nor a design of a disposal site.
Nuclear waste should never be an afterthought and if the Koeberg site is used as a high level waste dump, Cape Town will not only need an evacuation plan that spans generations but will also live with the risk of leaks or worse due to mismanagement, poor design or intentional sabotage.
The Russian company Rosatom is the most likely vendor, and the thought of a combination of Russian quality engineering and Eskom’s attention to detail with respect to maintenance is far from reassuring.