The National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) has given a conditional concurrence with the section 34 ministerial determination to proceed with procuring a new nuclear plant. This concurrence has some crucial suspensive conditions, in particular 1.3. This makes it clear that given the information put before NERSA, the decision to go ahead with a nuclear build cannot be considered rational.
There are good reasons for that. Firstly, detailed modelling by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has established that nuclear power is not needed in South Africa. We can generate the electricity the country needs, and achieve our carbon emissions reductions goals without nuclear power. Adding nuclear power into the mix will only add risk and increase the cost of electricity.
In addition, the global trend is clear, and new nuclear builds have fallen to a tenth of what they were in 1985:
In our view, the rush of activity around this determination and the Thyspunt site licence hearings are an orchestrated attempt by the nuclear industry to distract the public and the media from some very serious issues at the Koeberg nuclear plant.
The future of nuclear power in Africa stands or falls with the Koeberg plant, which is always held up as a shining example of well regulated, reliable, safe and cheap power. The closer one looks at the history of the plant, the less convincing this narrative becomes.
Eskom has admitted that it has already signed contracts for the refurbishment of the plant to extend its life by 20 years, before getting a licence from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), as is required by law. That licence will specify the extent to which modern safety features must be retrofitted to the reactor buildings, and the process of granting the licence, including those specifications, will be subject to public input via submissions and hearings. These must be taken into account before a final decision can be made by the NNR.
The fact that the contract is already in place, means that the scope of work has already been defined by Eskom, making a mockery of the regulatory authority of the NNR.
On the subject of reliability, Koeberg unit 1 was offline from January to June this year. The plant manager was suspended in June, and shortly thereafter it was powered up, only to trip and go offline again at the end of August. It is not hard to see that a plant which is nearing the end of its design lifetime and spending so much time offline is clearly not reliable.
In 2018 Eskom found there was extensive damage to the containment build of unit 2, including accelerated corrosion and cracking of the protective concrete dome. Eskom have refused to release details of this damage.
Much like a frayed safety belt, we will only find out if the containment building is still functional if some other accident occurs.
Nuclear is Cheap?
The is broad agreement is that new nuclear is the most expensive form of electricity generation. What is less known is how much all this work on the Koeberg plant will cost? Eskom has said the new steam generators would be R20 billion, but the cost of the refurbishment contract is unknown. It also appears the steam generators purchased from China do not fit Koeberg, and need to be modified.
Eskom has not released a study showing what the cost of electricity from Koeberg will be once all these expenses are taken into account. In addition, Eskom is infamous for projects running overtime, three times over budget, and then exploding due to poor maintenance procedures, as happened at Medupi. This is not an organisation one wants running a modern nuclear plant, let alone one designed in the 1960s and built in the 1970s.
A new nuclear plant is a vague aspiration for many years in the future. We need to look past the furore being generated by these processes such as the NERSA concurrence, and look at the very real imminent danger on the outskirts of Cape Town. Koeberg is an ageing, outdated plant, corroding at an expected rate, and with none of the safety features required in modern designs. Eskom cannot be allowed to bypass the proper regulatory process and unilaterally extend its life by twenty years.