IAEA visit to Koeberg results in misunderstandings

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant near Cape Town from 22 to 31 March 2022. Both the IAEA and Eskom put out media statements after the visit, which are available on the Eskom and IAEA sites respectively. The statements have resulted in some misunderstanding, which we try to correct below.

Firstly, it is important to bear in mind that the IAEA is an organisation with voluntary membership and has the objective “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy”, according to its statute. Member states may invite the IAEA to visit a nuclear site to conduct a review and make recommendations, and this visit was done after a request from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.

Not an inspection nor a design review
The IAEA was careful to point out in its statement that it does not perform “regulatory inspections” and these visits should not be seen as “design reviews” nor as an “exhaustive assessment of a plant’s overall safety status.” It is interesting to note that while the Eskom statement is mostly a copy of the IAEA statement, Eskom chose to omit this point which perhaps contributes to the confusion.

Members of the media have approached us at Koeberg Alert Alliance asking for comment on the IAEA “review mission giving Koeberg a clean bill of health” or the IAEA “safety inspection”. The IAEA did not “inspect” Koeberg, and certainly did not assess the plant as having a “clean bill of health”.

The details will be in the (secret) report…
The outcome of the review visit will be a report which will be ready no later than the end of June 2022, and Eskom has already indicated it is unlikely that they will choose to share that report with the public. This poses the question: if the report will not contain details of any embarrassing problems, why has Eskom already decided to keep it secret?

Vague, yet concerning
While the IAEA statement is vague, it does contain some concerning implications. For example, it states that Eskom should “Ensure full functionality of the containment structure monitoring system”. This clearly implies that there is a system which is not fully functional, either because it has never been in place, or that it is broken. It appears this relates to the corrosion and cracking of the containment domes, which is another subject that Eskom refuses to release a full report about. We have written before about the 110 metre crack around the top of the unit 2 containment building, and the accelerating corrosion.

Another vaguely worded recommendation from the IAEA is that Eskom should complete “the revalidation of qualification of cables in the containment”. Saying that something should be “revalidated” implies that the first attempt at validation was inadequate. Again, without the details it is difficult to understand how  serious a lapse this is.

Whatever the details of the IAEA recommendations are, Eskom will need to have the funds, time and skills to implement them. With a R400bn debt, the almost comical sequence of fumbles and delays in the steam generator replacement project, and the recent exodus of skills from Koeberg, all three of these are open to question. If the IAEA report is kept secret as Eskom intends, it will be impossible to assess this objectively.

Consultation with an uninformed public is meaningless
It is also worrying that the Eskom media statement speaks confidently about extending the life of Koeberg yet makes no mention that it can only happen after receiving approval from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR). Within the next few months the NNR will be conducting public consultations about whether or not to grant the 20 year life extension to Koeberg, and the only way for that to be meaningful is for the public to be fully informed about the state of the plant. That cannot happen while Eskom continues to avoid transparency and operate Koeberg behind a veil of secrecy.

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