Civil society representative excluded from NNR board

The National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) is tasked with protecting the public and the environment from radiation. The NNR Act of 1999 requires that the Board of the NNR includes a person representing civil society. Despite that, in 2020 civil society became progressively unhappy that there seemed to be no such representative.

After being nominated by several organisations in late 2020, in June 2021, Peter Becker of the Koeberg Alert Alliance was appointed to the Board to fulfil this role.

Currently, there is a lot of attention on the work being done at Koeberg which requires prior approval from the NNR. There are meetings of the Board this week where technical aspects of these matters will be discussed and decided on.

On Monday 17 January Becker was refused access to the agenda and document packs for these meetings by the Board secretary, and his access to the online document portal has been revoked. He wrote to the Board chair asking for a reason, but to date no response has been received. He also was not invited to the online meetings.

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Eskom statement re Koeberg outage confusing and disingenuous

On 15 January Eskom released a statement saying that Koeberg unit 2 “will on Monday 17 January 2022 be taken offline for a regular refuelling and maintenance outage that is scheduled for five months.”

Setting the disingenuous tone
Firstly it is disingenuous to call this a “regular refuelling” outage. It is about as accurate as saying your car is going to the mechanic for refuelling, and by the way while busy filling the tank they will also replace the gearbox. The vast majority of the cost and the duration of the outage will be to do the refurbishment, so it is more accurate to call this a refurbishment outage.

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Anti-nuclear protest highlights safety concerns at Koeberg

An anti-nuclear demonstration held on Bloubergstrand Beach on 16 December highlighted concerns of Capetonians about the implications of Eskom extending Koeberg’s lifespan next year. The nuclear plant reaches the end of its 40-year lifespan in 2024 but Eskom is trying to extend its operating life by another 20 years before any public consultation.

Demonstrators on beach holding posters
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Koeberg airborne contamination incident

Shortly after midnight on 28 October 2021 some test results became available which found excessive levels of Iodine-131 in the ventilation system at the Koeberg nuclear power station. This was likely a result of a test which had been done in the afternoon, combined with faulty filtration systems that meant the Koeberg Security Central Alarm Station (CAS) had to be evacuated.

While it is reassuring that Eskom were testing this safety system, no standard test procedure includes evacuating all staff from the security nerve centre of a nuclear plant. Clearly there was something significantly wrong.

While Eskom has not released much by way of detail, it is likely to be a result of a combination of three factors.

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Is Koeberg really run under a permit from the IAEA?

On the Cape Talk show ‘Breakfast with Refilwe Moloto’ on 29 October 2021 the issue of the safety of the Koeberg Nuclear Power plant was discussed with guest Mike Rossouw. Rossouw mentioned the International Atomic Energy Agency, and made some statements which are in need of correction. (Cape Talk has subsequently done a follow up which can be heard here.)

On the show Rossouw said that “Eskom is regulated by an International Nuclear Agency”, which is incorrect. The IAEA can only make recommendations to a member country, and member countries are free to implement, or ignore, those recommendations. For example, in 2013 the IAEA made several recommendations concerning South Africa, and while some of these have been implemented, others have simply been ignored for the past eight years.

Consequently, Eskom does not require a ‘permit’ from the IAEA to operate Koeberg, as Rossouw stated on the show. He said “the real risk is that the Agency will recall their permit, in which case they will have to shutdown”.

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NERSA conditional nuclear concurrence distracts from Koeberg problems

NERSA conditional concurrence with new nuclear

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.

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Civil society responds to reports of Koeberg contract

It was recently widely reported in the media that a US-based engineering company has been awarded a portion of a R20bn contract to extend the life of the Koeberg nuclear power plant. Activists and civil organisations are concerned that the legal processes required to grant a licence for a life extension have not been followed.

Koeberg’s nuclear licence expires in 2024

In order to operate beyond 2024, Eskom needs the approval of the NNR, and a new licence to be issued. This licencing process is described in new regulations published in March 2021, which requires a notice in the government gazette as well as announcements in local newspapers. This would allow the public to make comments for the NNR to take into account before making a decision. However, it appears that this process has not been followed.

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Contract to extend the life of Koeberg nuclear plant already signed?

The KAA has noted recent media reports that claim Jacobs Engineering Group has secured a contract to extend the life of the Koeberg nuclear power plant.

Koeberg is operated by Eskom, under a licence from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) which expires in July 2024. In order to operate beyond that date, Eskom needs the approval of the NNR for the life extension, and a new licence to be granted. This licencing process requires a public participation process which the NNR is obliged to take into account before making a decision.

The fact that this contract has been announced before the NNR has indicated it has even received the life extension application from Eskom is deeply concerning. The NNR has the mandate to protect the public, but to allow Eskom to ignore due process and make this announcement as if the extension is a ‘done deal’ calls into question the independence of the NNR.

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Thyspunt nuclear hearings distract from Koeberg problems

The National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) has announced public hearings relating to an Eskom application to licence the Thyspunt site in the Eastern Cape for a new nuclear plant build. The hearings will take place on 25 and 26 August 2021 in St Francis Bay and Jeffreys Bay respectively. 

Brief EIA history

Composite showing documents supporting both Thyspunt and Koeberg sites

Thyspunt lies 80k west of Gqeberha (formally known as Port Elizabeth), in between St. Francis Bay and Oyster Bay. The site was one of three proposed by Eskom for a new nuclear installation in 2008, the others being Duynefontein (next to Koeberg outside Cape Town) and Bantamsklip (near Hermanus in the southern Cape). The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) found that the Thyspunt site was the least risky however in a surprise move the minister for the environment approved the project in 2017, but named Duynefontein for the build. This decision was appealed, and four years later, no decision on that appeal has been made.

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Suspension of Koeberg Plant Manager

Profile photo of Riedewaan Bakardien

Eskom issued a statement on 4 June confirming the suspension of Koeberg’s General Manager for performance-related issues (see below for full text). This is concerning as it raises several questions from a safety perspective.

One man, two jobs
Firstly Eskom’s chief nuclear officer, Riedewaan Bakardien (shown here), is now also doing the job of Koeberg plant manager, which means he can’t be giving 100% of his attention to either job. What aspect of these jobs is going to be neglected during this time?

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