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.
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.
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.
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.