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”.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
All eyes were on Minister Gwede Mantashe today to see what he had to say about nuclear power issues as he presented the budget for his Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE). In a surprising move, he did not mention the subject.
However, last week on 12 May addressing the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), Mantashe responded to questions about the Koeberg nuclear power plant. According to academics, activists and organisations, Mantashe’s answers contained disinformation that implied that Koeberg’s 20-year life extension is approved, and that the cost of the electricity it produces is a fraction of what it actually is.
The responsibility of regulating the safety of nuclear installations in South Africa is concentrated in the hands of one man, who appoints not only the members of the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA), but also the CEO of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) , and its board via an opaque process. The same man has committed in writing to both procuring a new nuclear plant by 2024, and extending the life of Koeberg by 20 years beyond its design lifetime.
Ministerial performance agreements address poor service delivery In 2019, in an attempt to address poor service delivery, President Ramaphosa required each national minister to sign a performance agreement. This was laudable, but in some cases has had unforeseen and negative consequences.
At a Cabinet Meeting held on 21 April 2021, the addition of a civil society representative to the board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) was finally announced.
The NNR board has been without a civil society representative since August 2020 flouting compliance with the NNR Act. According to several organisations, this lack of representation has contributed to weakened governance at the NNR whose role is to ensure nuclear safety in South Africa, particularly at Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant (Koeberg).
Appointment is welcomed but overdue The new board member, Koeberg Alert Alliance’s (KAA) spokesperson, Peter Becker, says, “The NNR board has been without a civil society representative for nearly nine months and while this announcement is welcome, it is long overdue. Civil society is an essential part of oversight for government and this is a step towards ensuring the NNR applies the highest international safety standards to nuclear installations in South Africa, and the Koeberg plant in particular.