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.
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.
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.
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.
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.