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.
On 18 March 2022, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) announced that Dr. Mzubanzi Bismark Tyobeka had resigned as the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation. This resignation comes at a busy time for the NNR as it considers Eskom’s application to extend the life of Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy talks about procurement of 2500MW new nuclear by 2024.
Considering the implications, this resignation has raised questions from civil society.
On 16 March 2022, Peter Becker of Koeberg Alert Alliance (KAA) presented to a workshop organised by the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) in the Northern Cape. SAFCEI and the KAA sometimes work together informally on matters that affect communities.
Community members wanted to understand more about how nuclear power works, and also how to learn more about the waste which is disposed of at Vaalputs.
On 17 February 2022 a small group of protesters representing civil society organisations gathered outside the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) offices in Tableview to protest the suspension and pending discharge of their representative on the NNR Board. There organisations represented included then Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI), Project 90 by 2030, 350Africa.org, Koeberg Alert Alliance and the Federation for Sustainable Environment. Below are some photographs of the event, as well as the list of demands that was handed over.
Previous posts have described how Minister Mantashe suspended the Board member who was representing communities on the Board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR). This suspension had no basis in law, and to avoid an urgent court case set for 8 February 2022, a settlement was reached whereby Mantashe agreed to make a decision on whether or not to discharge the Board member by 15 February. Despite this settlement agreement being made an order of the court, Mantashe failed to do so. However, on 15 February he finally laid out his reasons for intending to discharge the Board member. The full letter is included below.
Six months after appointing a Board member to the Board of National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) in order to represent affected communities, Minister Mantashe unlawfully suspended Peter Becker on 18 January 2022. He has been a vocal campaigner against nuclear power in South Africa for about 12 years, and when Mantashe appointed him in June 2021 it was widely welcomed as an enlightened step. According to the NNR Act of 1999, the NNR Board also includes a member from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), well known for a very pro-nuclear stance.
It is generally agreed that nuclear power comes with an inherent risk. What is hotly debated is whether or not there are benefits which outweigh that risk. When it comes to the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant, Eskom have had the approach that since Koeberg produces electricity at a cost of around R0.45 per kWh, it is a ‘no-brainer’ to spend whatever is needed on a refurbishment to extend the life of the plant beyond the end of its design life in 2024.
A recently released modelling report estimates that doing that refurbishment would result in additional costs of R50bn “from a combination of the actual costs of life extension, additional open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) usage, large key-customer curtailment requests/instructions, and scheduled load-shedding.” It will also increase carbon emissions due to the additional use of OCGTs.
Previous posts have described how the NNR Board member Peter Becker, who was appointed to the NNR Board to represent communities was first excluded from Board processes in early January 2022, then formally suspended by Minister Mantashe on 18 January, as well as the response to the suspension letter. The Minister was subsequently sent the letter below, which demanded that he lift the suspension due to the fact that while he has the power to discharge a Board member, he has no power to suspend.
It has since emerged that on the same day of the letter, 18 January 2022, Eskom received approval from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) to go ahead with the replacement of the first three steam generators at Koeberg.
It is a peculiar coincidence that based on a legal opinion delivered in early October 2021, the Minister happened to write the suspension letter on the day the NNR approved this major project, which is a key component of Eskom’s plan to extend the life of the ageing plant by twenty years.
Becker strenuously denies all the allegations of ‘misconduct’ and ‘conflict of interest’ which have been made against him and hopes to challenge this decision and have it reversed.
Meanwhile, the Regulator presses forward with deliberating on what approvals to grant the Koeberg Nuclear plant at a critical time when work is about to start to extend its lifetime by twenty years. This is precisely the time when it would be in the public interest to have someone with Becker’s expertise involved in oversight of NNR processes.