In March 2022 a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Koeberg to report on how ready the plant was to implement Eskom’s plan to extend its life beyond 2024. Eskom wanted to keep this report secret, but due to a request under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, it is now public.
The report lists fourteen safety issues with the planned life extension, or LTO (Long Term Operation), which mostly highlight that given the current conditions at Koeberg, the refurbishment cannot be done on time, nor safely. The full report is included below.
The Koeberg nuclear plant is the only nuclear power plant in Africa. Construction began in the 1970s and the plant came online in 1984. It operates under a licence from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) which expires in July 2024. In 2010 the Eskom Board approved spending R20bn on refurbishing Koeberg to extend its life by 20 years, provided that it received approval from the NNR. That approval has not as yet been given to Eskom by the NNR.
Currently Koeberg provides 3.5% of national nominal generating capacity, although over the past few years it has been plagued by problems. For most of 2022, unit 2 has been offline and the plant has run at half of its nominal capacity.
A declaration of an ‘energy emergency’ has been touted as a necessary step to “cut through the red tape” and address the electricity crisis. But what exactly does this mean? Which regulations or processes will be bypassed?
When it comes to the Koeberg nuclear plant, one upcoming regulatory requirement and a concern for those advocating for a life extension is getting approval from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR). The current operating licence expires in July 2024, and without the NNR granting a life extension, this is when the plant will have to be permanently shut down.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.