The latest announcement from Eskom that ‘planned maintenance’ work has stalled at Koeberg nuclear power station, due to a lack of preparation, is just more evidence that citizens should be concerned about Eskom’s nuclear management and readiness, says the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI).
Following January’s announcement that Unit 2 of the nuclear reactor at Koeberg went on a long-term outage for its steam generator replacement programme, on Friday 4 March, Eskom’s Chief Nuclear Officer Riedewaan Bakardien, informed South Africans that the planned maintenance was no longer happening due to “a building that will house the old [radioactive] steam generators once they are removed from the plant” not being ready. And now Eskom has also initiated a fresh bout of loadshedding at Stage 4.
SAFCEI’s Executive Director of Francesca de Gasparis says “Tomorrow 11 March 2011, it will be 11 years since the world watched the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Japan unfold. This disaster should serve as a constant reminder that the management of a nuclear power plant is, by implication, a very meticulous job, and that maintenance and repairs must be planned and adhered to way in advance. However, even in Japan, an unexpected natural disaster wreaked devastating havoc with the loss of thousands of lives and erase local economy of the nearby towns and cities due to radiation. The knowledge of past nuclear power plant disasters seems to have escaped Eskom and Koeberg, which went into this project wholly unprepared for the risks and not prepared to contain the radioactive steam generators. The safety risks and wasteful expenditure at Koeberg are why we have been calling for more transparency and oversight on the country’s nuclear power plant. With nuclear energy, there is no room for error. The steam generators, once removed, are highly radioactive and require very specific safe storage conditions. How can it be for such a major project, which has several public health and safety risks, that Eskom does not have all the necessary requirements in place?”
“There seems to be a worrying culture of secrecy around Koeberg, which was brought into sharper focus when the communities’ representative sitting on the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), Peter Becker, was dismissed by the Minister for Mineral and Energy Resources, last week. Then, the fact that Eskom is trying to pass off the nuclear plant’s lifespan extension as routine maintenance, is misleading and is causing much confusion. And remember, last year, Koeberg’s general manager was removed, in the midst of repeated outages of Unit 1, and the public has received no real information about this. Now we learn that Eskom has started a project, without being fully prepared for it. The NNR is supposed to regulate the nuclear industry and promote nuclear safety. Why did the NNR approve the steam generators replacement when it turns out Eskom had not prepared adequately this high-risk operation?” says de Gasparis.
In October 2020, members of the SAFCEI team requested to be part of part of Koeberg’s 2-yearly emergency drill but was denied participation.
De Gasparis says, “There needs to be a greater commitment to more openness and transparency on these issues and we must learn from the mistakes of the past. South Africa, especially after covid has wreaked worldwide damage, cannot afford to go through disasters like Chernobyl or Fukushima, which were largely the result of human error.”
SAFCEI recently highlighted that without a community representative on the NNR board, which is required by law, the public’s concerns cannot be raised nor dealt with. The need for meaningful public participation is particularly important since the nuclear power plant, which is at the end of its life span, should be heading for decommissioning, and permanently closing down in 2024. Yet there still seem to be major and costly projects being planned, with no agreement for life extension and no public participation or consultation process, and approval from the NNR is still pending.
She says, “This is why a civil society representative on the NNR Board, someone is focused on public safety and is tuned into the people’s concerns, is an absolute requirement to ensure more rigorous attention to safety issues. Furthermore, considering that Eskom just got the green light to increase its electricity prices, who will foot the bill for flying French nuclear contractors out to South Africa, only to find Eskom were not ready?”
“The question is, if South Africans had all the safety information and knew the true costs they would pay, would the public really want to extend the life of this old nuclear power plant so it can run for another 20 years when there are other energy systems that are far quicker to get off the ground and less costly, and quite frankly less risky? Add that with the recent seismic activity (earthquakes) recorded near the Koeberg Plant in 2020, in addition to a considerably higher population around the plant, than compared to when it was built in the 1970s, and rising sea levels and extreme weather due to climate change. This has increased the need for more comprehensive health and safety planning and engagement with affected communities, which we do not believe Eskom and the NNR are taking seriously enough,” adds de Gasparis.
Members of civil society are calling on the government to be more transparent about its plans with nuclear energy, in the interest of public safety. We are also urging the Minister to reinstate Peter Becker as the community representative on the NNR Board, the Minister may not like that he is anti-nuclear however the public must be represented and who would better to ask the right questions for our safety than someone who is sceptical of nuclear as a necessary energy source. The community representative’s role should be to keep government on its toes as they make plans for this dangerous and outdated technology. It is past time for government to make more decisive moves toward a just transition which means more affordable and accessible energy solutions, not more gas and not more nuclear, in order to ensure our that future generations live in a safe and sustainable environment.”
Following a meeting with civil society on 3 March 2022, Peter Becker has confirmed that he will pursue his dismissal, through legal channels.