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Koeberg nuclear power plant rejuvenation: Protesters say silence is a killer

A general view of the Koeberg Alert Alliance during a protest against a proposed 16km nuclear evacuation line and the safety of Koeberg Power Plant in Bloubergstrand on December 16, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

With Eskom on the verge of beginning its R20-billion project to extend the operating life of the Koeberg nuclear power station by 20 years, civil society organisations held a protest to question its safety and call for public participation in decision-making processes. Eskom, in turn, has argued that it is complying with all requirements set out in legislation. 

The decision to extend the operating life of the Koeberg nuclear power station by 20 years is not one to be made by engineers alone, but rather one that should involve consultation with members of the public.

This is the view of Peter Becker, spokesperson for the Koeberg Alert Alliance (KAA), an anti-nuclear activist group.

“This has a moral component, a society component, an intergenerational ethics component – this is not for a bunch of engineers to decide alone. That is why the community needs to be consulted, and the public needs to have their say,” said Becker.

Shirley Walters (left) during a protest against the proposed 16km nuclear evacuation line in Bloubergstrand Beach, Cape Town on 16 December 2021. The community is demanding answers on the safety of the power plant, which has a licence set to expire in 2024. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Becker was among about 50 protesters who gathered on Bloubergstrand beach on Thursday to protest against the extension of the nuclear power station’s operating life and raise awareness about its operational issues. At the protest, which was organised by KAA and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI), organisers encouraged attendees to sign an online petition to shut down the station by 2024.

The petition calls on André de Ruyter, chief executive officer of Eskom, to:

  • Acknowledge that the Koeberg nuclear power station will never be as safe as modern nuclear power station designs;
  • Shut down the station in 2024, as originally planned;
  • Not run the station after 2024 while it lacks modern safety features, such as a core catcher;
  • Avoid the unnecessary load shedding that will result from efforts to extend the station’s life;
  • Not spend billions of rand upgrading a station from the 1970s;
  • Divert the funds allocated for extending the station’s lifespan to support community-owned renewable energy, and work on a permanent solution for the disposal of over 1,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste currently at the Koeberg site.

Protesters hailed from a number of communities, including Duynefontein, Khayelitsha and Delft, according to Khulekani Magwaza, the energy and climate justice coordinator at SAFCEI.

“We feel that [Eskom is] not adequately informing the public in terms of the risks involved. What is it that you are actually taking on board when you say, ‘Let’s extend something by 20 years that was only made to last for 40 years?’” said Cele Esau, a faith leader for environmental activism at SAFCEI. 

A kite surfing protestor at the Koeberg Alert Alliance protest against a proposed 16km nuclear evacuation line and the saftey of Koeberg Power Plant in Bloubergstrand on December 16, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

Esau explained that the protesters were gathered along the 16km mark from Koeberg power station to make people aware that in the event of a nuclear accident, the evacuation plan only requires those within a 16km radius of the plant to be evacuated. “We need to make people aware, because I do not think that people who live here are aware that they live in a fallout zone.”

The money that is earmarked for extending the operating life of the power plant should be going towards the development of renewable energy options, according to Muzzamil Benjamin, another attendee of the protest.

“[W]e need to start using solar panels, the sun power, which is very natural,” said Benjamin.

Shirley Walters, a long-time anti-nuclear activist, believes that South Africans need to move away from nuclear energy and embrace renewables.

“I don’t think, as a country, we can afford to spend huge amounts of money on one project, because it’s an opportunity for more stealing, more corruption… and it’s not necessarily providing the jobs and livelihoods that everybody needs,” said Walters.

A large part of the concern about Koeberg stems from the lack of transparency about its operations, according to Becker. He referenced a Promotion of Access to Information Act request that KAA submitted in 2020, to get a report on cracks in the station’s containment unit.

“[Eskom] took 143 days to respond to that request, and gave [the report] to us half blacked-out,” said Becker.

Peter Becker, spokesperson for the Koeberg Alert Alliance, assists in coordinating a protest against the extension of Koeberg nuclear power station’s operating life at Bloubergstrand Beach on 16 December 2021. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

The protest served to emphasise this lack of transparency, while also informing the public on the issues around extending Koeberg’s lifespan. 

“Before a licence to extend the life [of the power station] is granted by the National Nuclear Regulator, there must be a public consultation process,” said Becker. “We want the public to be aware now, and ready, so that when they ask for an opinion, they are able to participate in an informed manner, and meaningfully.”

Eskom forges ahead

From January 2022, Unit 2 of the Koeberg nuclear power station will undergo a long-term outage of 155 days. This will allow for general maintenance, as well as the replacement of steam generators as part of the life extension project for the station.

Once Unit 2 returns to service, the same process will be undertaken with Unit 1, said De Ruyter at Eskom’s stakeholder update presentation on 15 December 2021.

“The steam generators – very large pieces of equipment – have already been delivered on site and are safely housed at Koeberg,” said De Ruyter.

Responding to Daily Maverick’s questions at the presentation, De Ruyter added that Eskom is complying with all requirements set out in legislation and by the National Nuclear Regulator of South Africa in regard to extending the life of the power station.

“I can give South Africans, and in particular people in the vicinity of Koeberg, reassurance that the National Nuclear Regulator takes its job extremely seriously and is truly a guardian of public interest when it comes to nuclear safety,” said De Ruyter. “[W]e will abide by all of the safety prescripts identified by the regulator, obviously, and also any procedural requirements of public engagement.”

Koeberg station is Eskom’s cheapest electricity generation option, costing about 42 cents per kilowatt-hour generated. This is around half the cost of coal-fired generation, said De Ruyter.

“This is probably one of the most lucrative projects, and most economic projects, in Eskom,” said De Ruyter. “As far as Eskom is concerned, life extension for Koeberg is a no-brainer.” DM/OBP

 

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  • There is more chance that safe SMRs are perfected faster and cheaper than a 100% renewable grid

    Either way, we are looking at 2040 onwards. So the question is what do we do now ? Answer – a #MillionMicroGrids