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.
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.
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.
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 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.
After 17h00 on Thursday the 1st of April, the eve of the Easter weekend, Eskom’s response to the Nuclear-1 Environmental Authorisation (EA) appeal was released. This response marks the last step before Environment Minister Barbara Creecy makes a final decision on granting Eskom permission to build a new nuclear plant at the Koeberg site, 27kms north of the city of Cape Town.
According to civil organisations, the response document contains misinformation and worryingly shows Eskom pushing for a new nuclear build, overriding the country’s energy plan, the Integrated Resource Plan of 2019 (IRP 2019).
It has long been suspected that the only motivation behind pushing for nuclear power in South Africa has been corruption via State Capture, coming from then President Jacob Zuma. Details of this are emerging at the Zondo commission into State Capture where it has been testified that a Minister of Finance was fired specifically because he would not ignore the realities of the cost of nuclear power, and so refused tos sign off on the nuclear deal.
Despite this, and despite Zuma being removed from office, there are disturbing signs that there are still those in positions of power who are pushing for taxpayers’ money to be given to the nuclear industry.