Our Burning Planet

NEW FRAME ANALYSIS

Retrofitting Koeberg power station is more likely to provoke a catastrophe than preserve energy — the plant should be closed

A general view of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station near Melkbos outside Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Shaun Roy)
By Neil Overy
17 Nov 2021 10

Concerns have been expressed about staff turnover at the ageing facility. Instead of extending its lifespan, renewable energy should replace it.

Recent comments from Eskom chief operating officer Jan Oberholzer about what is going on at Koeberg nuclear power station were refreshingly frank, and for that, he is to be commended. Whether anyone living near the plant — and that includes everyone in Cape Town and surrounds — will be able to sleep after fully digesting what he had to say is another matter. 

Speaking to the press about Eskom’s status as we head into the summer months, Oberholzer said he was “extremely concerned” about the two trips to the unit one reactor at Koeberg (on 30 August and 24 October). He added that he was “horrified” at the number of staff who had left Koeberg in recent times, “taking away with them years of experience”. Some had resigned despite having no other job offers. Rumours abound that there have been as many as 200 resignations from Koeberg recently. 

To this, we can add the suspension of Koeberg’s general manager in June for unspecified “non-performance”, though it appears to be related to maintenance failures. We can also add the recent bungled safety test, which resulted in part of the power station having to be evacuated because it became contaminated with a radioactive isotope being used during the test. Whether this contamination was the result of incompetence or the failure of Koeberg’s ageing infrastructure is not yet known. 

Eskom chief executive Andre de Ruyter confirmed recently what was already well known: there were skills shortages and problems with staff morale at Koeberg. Just how concerned should Capetonians be about this apparent chaos? 

Breaching convention

South Africa is a signatory to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which, under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “aims to commit contracting parties operating land-based civil nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety by establishing fundamental safety principles”. 

Article 11 of this convention is relevant to current concerns about Koeberg. It states two things. First, it says that contracting parties “shall take the appropriate steps to ensure that sufficient numbers of qualified staff with appropriate education, training and retraining are available for all safety-related activities”. Given that Oberholzer is “horrified” by the number of senior resignations at Koeberg, what assurance do we have from Eskom that it is not in breach of this provision?

The second section of Article 11 notes that contracting parties “shall take appropriate steps to ensure that adequate financial resources are available to support the safety of each nuclear installation”. We all know that Eskom is R400-billion in debt. We also know from Eskom group executive for generation Phillip Dukashe, speaking at the same press conference where Oberholzer made his revelations, that Eskom continues to divert vast amounts of money that had been set aside for maintenance to its gas turbines to try to keep the lights on. Given this, Eskom could be in breach of this section of Article 11 as well.

Shortages and shortfalls at the regulator

Eskom’s operations at Koeberg are overseen by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), which exercises, among other things, regulatory control “related to safety over the siting, design, construction, operation, manufacture of component parts, and the decontamination, decommissioning and closure of nuclear installations”. But evidence would appear to suggest that we cannot rest assured that the NNR will prevent a crisis at Koeberg.

The first problem relates to the NNR’s location inside the government. It sits in nuclear zealot Gwede Mantashe’s ministry of mineral and energy resources, the very department promoting nuclear power. International best practice is to house regulatory authorities elsewhere. In South Africa, it would make sense to house the NNR in the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.

Second, there are internal problems at the NNR. It too experiences staff shortages and budget shortfalls. Its vacancy rate hovers around 10% and it battles to recruit the types of experienced staff necessary for its operation. Its past two annual reports indicate that salary expenditure at the NNR is falling, largely because of “movements of staff members and delays in the filling of vacant positions”. This is even though the NNR informed the Convention on Nuclear Safety in 2019 (during South Africa’s eighth Convention on Nuclear Safety assessment) that it was aware that it needed to “increase its staffing levels”. This assertion was made just before the National Treasury imposed a moratorium on the recruitment of new staff by the NNR as part of its austerity drive. Incidentally, in this same report to the convention, the NNR described as an “area of concern” Eskom’s inability to maintain “qualified and experienced” staff at Koeberg. 

For several years, the NNR has appealed to parliamentary oversight committees and the treasury to increase its operational budget. The organisation claims that it is financially compromised because of the inability of Eskom and the state-owned Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa to timeously pay their nuclear licence fees, which make up the bulk of the NNR’s income. Bismark Tyobeka, chief executive of the NNR, stated in 2019 that “providing effective continuous nuclear safety regulatory oversight to a financially constrained industry in South Africa remained a challenge”. Tyobeka repeated this assertion in May this year, saying that staffing shortages caused by budget limitations threatened the NNR’s “viability as far as regulatory expertise are concerned”.

Ageing infrastructure

It is quite clear that we cannot assume that the NNR has the financial and human resources to properly regulate what Eskom is and is not doing at Koeberg. As if this were not bad enough, we need to also reflect on Eskom’s intention to extend the life of Koeberg past its planned closure date. 

One of the important risks identified by research undertaken by the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Austria into nuclear plant lifetime extensions is the danger that institutional knowledge has been lost because of the passage of time and staff turnover. This is clearly a very real danger at Koeberg. Another risk identified by the group is that retrofitting cannot ever get close to preventing ageing processes at nuclear power plants. It suggests that “negative ageing effects could be counteracted by intensifying inspections and monitoring”, something that seems unlikely at Koeberg.

When Koeberg was finished, Cape Town’s then medical office for health, Reg Coogan, upped and left the city for Gordon’s Bay. But leaving is, of course, not a solution. The solution is to shut down the ageing and failing Koeberg as originally scheduled and replace it with renewable energy sources. That is the only decision fit for the 21st century. DM/OBP

First published by New Frame.

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Absa OBP

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All Comments 10

  • Look, shut down the power station – is probably a good idea exactly as you say.

    But replace with renewable energy? You’re showing a complete lack of understanding if you think that can work.

    You’d need to replace with renewable energy AND a backup 1.86GW gas power station.

    And can you afford that when you’re 400 bil in debt?

    • Yep – Alec is 100% correct. All renewables need to be backed up with base load supply for when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. So, yes these concerns at Koeberg are alarming but wind and solar are not going to be viable alternatives. Just take Germany and Denmark, who both piled into wind and solar – they now have the most expensive electricity in Europe and are constantly needing to monitor the grid to see when they need to fire up the conventional grid supply (i.e. coal or nuclear) to fill the gaps in renewable supply. Nuclear stations take days to fire up so that’s not really viable so they just run all the time in any event at great cost. The path to “green energy” is fraught with many dangers and high costs – it is not some panacea to fix all power supply problems. Consider India’s commitment to zero emissions by 2070 at COP26 – platitudes for the green brigade no less – but that’s 50 years away, while they are currently building no less than 28 coal power stations. There is no alternative to base load other than coal and nuclear (hydro too, but SA doesn’t have the water systems for that to be feasible).

      • Coal is out. I’ll go with gas & nuclear as stopgaps. South Africa should be fully into solar, wind & batteries…with stopgaps of conventional fuels…other than coal. So…let’s look at what the ‘green brigade’ is doing:

        It is a prototype, so it is expensive. If it pans out, the price should come down dramatically.
        Climate change/impact is real & everything should be done to counter it…otherwise all these energy discussions will be academic &, frankly, unnecessary…

  • I drove at night from Cape Town back to the Southern Cape at night two weeks ago – via Sir Lowry’s pass – good views back to CT and the flats. One huge sprawling mass of lights – I reckon that 50% of them did not need to be on. It is totally unacceptable that there are so many lights on – just drive through Strand and Somerset West at night along the N2 – millions of lights on in commercial offices, shops, factories, etc. Some houses have a row of several wall lights outside them. Every town back to the southern cape had 1000’s of lights on – unnecessarily. Mossel Bay is like a Christmas tree – right through to Hartenbos. George the same. I reckon that South Africa could reduce the electricity demand – especially at night – by a huge amount if we just acted responsibly and only used lights in the rooms or buildings we needed to. Make it law – educate the users – a simple and quick solution to demand reduction. And allow me to counteract what some are likely to saw about security – having lights on is not an effective deterrent – leave your place in the dark and have movement sensors to activate a light. Darkness is difficult and dangerous – and that’s where we are headed if we don’t reduce our electrical use in the near future in simple ways.

    • YES, Mr Morris! While we decry load-shedding, we live in an overlit world. Madness…
      As we become more digital, everything constantly sucks energy…(and let’s not get started on crypto currencies!)

  • When Koeberg shuts down in 2024 a grid scale battery should be installed. By that time the price of batteries will be cost-effective to balance the grid with renewables. Nuclear ‘baseload’ cannot perform this function and Koeberg will be beyond repair

  • There also the many hundreds of thousands GWH of electricity that has been generated with minimal carbon emissions. I think the article highlights the one of the key misalignments of the environmental movement in treating nuclear as less safe option compared to all other forms of generation where in reality thousands of lives are lost to coal mining and burning every year.

    You can see how this policy plays out in Germany where the greens got the nuclear plants shut down while most of the coal power plants are still running where it should have been the other way around if saving lives and the environment was the priority

    • I note that China has undertaken to build 150 nuclear power stations over the next 15 years.

      Britain and the US have funded the development of Small Modular Reactors that can be factory built and installed on brownfield sites where old coal powered plants have been shut down or demolished so eliminating any additional grid infrastructure costs.

      Shortly, in the next decade or so, the investments in weather dependent energy will be made redundant by the advance of nuclear power. I find it strange that the Climate Change enthusiasts aren’t pushing for greenhouse gas free nuclear power. The safety arguments don’t agree with the actual safety statistics, the concerns over waste disposal have been addressed by on site storage and the SMRs can be taken back to the factory for refuelling and waste management.

      Then of course we have the eternal promise of fusion reactors and even in that field there are bubbles of optimism appearing in the literature concerning small self contained units that do not use steam and turbines to generate electricity but direct plasma pulsing in magnetic fields.

      So called renewables are a developmental dead end except for unique niche applications. Attempting to control the weather using weather dependent machines always had an ironic feel to it.

  • The reason we were all against nuclear was we all knew Zuma had his fingers in the till. Nuclear is the cheapest cleanest form of energy. I think that’s where we should be heading, replacing all our worn out coal power stations.

  • I bet the non-performing GM triggered a lot of the staff exodus. There’s a saying “People don’t quit companies, they quit managers”. Competent staff, with marketable skills don’t put up with bad management for long. We saw it happen in other tech-heavy SOEs like Telkom, Eskom, Denel. Often, they also end up emigrating, adding to the brain drain and HNWI tax base erosion.