Too much power
The responsibility of regulating the safety of nuclear installations in South Africa is concentrated in the hands of one man, who appoints not only the members of the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA), but also the CEO of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) , and its board via an opaque process. The same man has committed in writing to both procuring a new nuclear plant by 2024, and extending the life of Koeberg by 20 years beyond its design lifetime.
Ministerial performance agreements address poor service delivery
In 2019, in an attempt to address poor service delivery, President Ramaphosa required each national minister to sign a performance agreement. This was laudable, but in some cases has had unforeseen and negative consequences.
The IRP 2010 and 2019
Shortly after these agreements were signed, the Integrated Resource Plan 2019 (IRP 2019) was released. In contrast to the previous IRP, it found that there was no room for a new nuclear plant in the least cost scenario. In other words, including new nuclear would result in an unnecessary increase in tariffs.
The IRP 2010 called for 9,600MW of new nuclear power to come online from 2023 through 2029 in its Revised Balanced Scenario. In contrast, the IRP 2019 shows zero new nuclear up to 2030 and is explicit about not making any final decisions or commitments for the time after 2030 stating: “The huge difference between scenarios beyond 2030 will, however, make it necessary to undertake a detailed energy path study that will inform a next update of the IRP.”
The IRP 2019 also said “consideration must be given to preparatory work” in case there is a need to expand South Africa’s nuclear capacity post 2030. The nuclear lobby is attempting to conflate this ‘preparatory work’ with actual procurement.
What is the link?
Since the ministerial agreements were drawn up before the IRP 2019 was released, they were done in the context of the IRP 2010. It therefore made sense that, as Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe was given the following in his agreed interventions: Implement the Nuclear New Build Programme, with the specific Target specified as: 2,500 MW of nuclear energy procured by 2024.
This aligns perfectly with the IRP 2010, which called for 1,600 MW of new nuclear per year starting in 2023. However, with the release of the IRP 2019 the target no longer made sense. It also means that Minister Mantashe is currently under written instructions by the President to in effect ignore the provisions of the IRP 2019.
We wrote to the President’s office on 1 March 2021 briefly outlining the problem and requesting that consideration be given to adjusting the performance agreement to reflect the IRP 2019. Receipt was acknowledged but no response has been received.
What is the effect?
Since the IRP 2019 focussed on least cost of electricity, going against its provisions will obviously result in higher tariffs.
This performance agreement has also been used as justification before the parliamentary oversight committee. During an oversight meeting for the DMRE on 23 February 2021, both the Director-General, Adv. Thabo Mokoena, and Mr Zizamele Mbambo, Deputy Director-General for Nuclear Energy, quoted Mantashe’s performance agreement as the motivation for pressing ahead to complete the nuclear procurement by 2024. Since that agreement was written in the context of the IRP 2010, in effect they are acting according to that ten year old plan, and ignoring the IRP 2019.
Another intervention in the performance agreement was Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant life extended beyond 2024 by 20 years.
The current licence for Koeberg expires in July 2024 and before it can operate beyond that, it must apply for a licence from the NNR. The NNR is the only body that has the power to refuse or revoke an operating licence for any nuclear facility if it is not satisfied with any safety issues. It is up to the NNR whether or not to grant this life extension licence for Koeberg, and if so, for how long.
What’s the catch?
The catch is the board of the NNR, as well as the CEO, are appointed by, and serve at the pleasure of, Minister Mantashe. There is a conflict of interest here because it would be helpful to Mantashe if the NNR does not cause delays by refusing a licence or requiring additional safety measures be implemented.
For example, the French nuclear regulator announced in February 2021 that 900MW pressurised water reactors (PWR) would only be granted a life extension licence if retrofitted with a core catcher. Koeberg consists of two 900 MW PWR’s without core catchers. It will be revealing to see if the NNR uses the same standard of safety when considering a life extension for Koeberg.
According to a heavily redacted report reluctantly released by Eskom, chlorides from the marine environment at Koeberg have led to corrosion at an unexpected rate: “It is clear that the original designers did not fully comprehend the severe environmental attack which the structures would be subjected to. As such, major reinforcement corrosion has occurred on parts of the outer surfaces, leading to concrete delamination and spalling.“
The same report states: “… there have been significant delays to repair concrete degradation with the net result that large patches amounting to approximately 10% of the containment building surface area have delaminated and chloride ingress extends past the rebar cover depth. If left unattended, corrosion of the post tensioning ducts can be expected.”
With half the report blacked out, It can only be imagined what additional damage was considered too ‘sensitive’ to be released. Legal steps are being taken to force Eskom to release the full report.
If these and other factors made the life extension unsafe in the opinion of the NNR, there is a real risk that the Mantashe simply appoints a new, more sympathetic board, in order to achieve his ministerial performance targets. It would not be the first time that the board of a state owned entity in South Africa is replaced for ulterior motives.
Even if the board or CEO is not replaced, it will be clear to them that by refusing or delaying this licence, they would cause their boss to miss his performance targets as mandated by the President.
What has that got to do with Fukushima?
The official Japanese government report found that regulatory failure was the root cause of the extent of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. In response, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) visited countries with nuclear power to review their systems and check that none of the weaknesses found at Fukushima were present in any operating plants.
After this review visit to South Africa, the IAEA published a report in February 2013, which was explicit on this point:
“The Minister of Energy and the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) are identified in the two Acts as having regulatory functions over nuclear activities. Considering that the Minister of Energy is also in charge of the promotion of nuclear energy and given that the Minister appoints the NNR Board and CEO, approves NNR’s budget and promulgates regulations, the INIR team is of the view that the separation between the regulatory functions and the promotional activities is not adequate, thus calling into question the effective independence of the NNR.”
Since receiving this report in 2013 with its recommendations, this concern has simply been ignored by the NNR and the DMRE.
Ministerial performance agreements are a useful tool towards ensuring service delivery. However, they can also muddy the waters of government planning when they include specifics which contradict formal planning documents such as the IRP.
As with any plan, these ministerial agreements should be living documents, which are monitored and subject to change as the environment changes. This is particularly true in the field of energy, which is an industry currently going through a major transition leading to high uncertainty about the future.
While Mantashe’s failure to act on the recommendations of the IAEA is an oversight that puts the safety of Koeberg at risk, it has been an oversight on the part of the President to fail to update this performance agreement with Mantashe.