Koeberg comes to the end of its life in the second half of 2024 when Eskom’s licence issued by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) expires. Eskom has applied to the NNR for a twenty year extension to this licence and were required to prepare a Safety Case which described why such an extension would be safe. Initially, at a Public Safety Information Forum meeting on 31 March 2022, Eskom refused to release the Safety Case publicly but later backtracked and released a redacted version of it with many sections blacked out in January 2023.
As part of the licence application, the NNR started a public consultation process on 8 January 2023 with a deadline for submissions on 16 March 2023. Due to the lack of transparency from Eskom, civil society organisations have rejected this process and demanded the complete suspension of the comment period.
On 27 February 2023 the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs gazetted the national state of disaster regulations related to South Africa’s energy crisis.
When the government first announced that it intended to declare a state of disaster, many experts and organisations stated that it was not necessary and a relaxed legislative environment would erode democratic governance. Inaction by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) caused the high levels of load shedding. Declaring a state of disaster was just an attempt to deflect blame.
This declaration of a state of disaster to “cut through the red tape” also allows the state to bypass important regulations and processes which is a major concern.
First, some background… The National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) Act of 1999 requires that one Board member is appointed “representing communities”. In 2020 civil society became concerned that this post had been vacant for a while and there seemed to be no attempt by Minister Mantashe to appoint anyone to this position. After receiving nominations for Peter Becker from several civil society organisations and requesting Becker’s CV, the Minister appointed him in June 2021.
In the first Board meeting he attended in July 2021, there was a complaint initiated by Eskom that Becker’s well known anti-nuclear stance was a conflict of interest and it was resolved to get a legal opinion to inform the Board. The opinion was prepared by MacRobert attorneys, and the Chair forwarded this to the Minister on 11 October 2021 without sharing it with the full Board. The Chair also requested that the Minister dismiss Becker by writing in an accompanying letter “since the Minister is the competent authority that is responsible for appointment and removal of NNR board members.” For a summary as well as the full judgment, see below.
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.