Statement from the South African Faith Communities Environment Institute Released 4 March 2022
It has now been just over a week since Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe fired Peter Becker (on 25 February) – the community representative on the board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), a position that is required by law – and many communities and civil society organisations are seething. Many feel that this dismissal implies, especially for those communities who live in the surrounding areas of Koeberg and near sites that government has earmarked for nuclear (such as Thyspunt), that their safety and their concerns about nuclear energy will either be silenced or will not effectively be dealt with.
According to Francesca de Gasparis, Executive Director at the Southern African Faith Communities’ Institute (SAFCEI), “This dismissal also sends the wrong message to current and future board members, who may not want to risk their position by speaking out about issues that concern them and those they represent. The role of the community representative on the Board is to represent communities when it comes to developments that could put their wellbeing and livelihoods at risk.”
After a long process which began in July 2021 Minister Mantashe provided reasons why he intended to fire the civil society representative on the Board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) on 16 February 2022. This was the first time the Minister had committed his reasons to paper, and it provided the first opportunity for Peter Becker, the suspended Board member, to respond to the allegations of misconduct that the Minister was making.
As part of the settlement, the Minister agreed to make a decision on whether or not to discharge the community representative, Peter Becker, by 15 February 2022. In the same settlement, the NNR agreed to suspend all decision making and meetings of the Board and subcommittees while the illegal suspension was in effect. This settlement agreement was made an order of the High Court. As it turned out, the Minister did not meet the deadline, and it is not know whether or not the NNR complied with the order.
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.
Previous posts have described how the NNR Board member Peter Becker, who was appointed to the NNR Board to represent communities was first excluded from Board processes in early January 2022, then formally suspended by Minister Mantashe on 18 January, as well as the response to the suspension letter. The Minister was subsequently sent the letter below, which demanded that he lift the suspension due to the fact that while he has the power to discharge a Board member, he has no power to suspend.
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.