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Nuclear regulator’s worrying findings cast severe doubts on Koeberg emergency preparedness

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Dr Neil Overy is an environmental researcher, writer and photographer. He has worked in the non-profit sector for more than 20 years and is a Research Associate in Environmental Humanities South at the University of Cape Town.

Given Eskom’s parlous financial position and its lack of transparency around safety issues, the emergency drills that take place at Koeberg are all the more necessary.

Given the ongoing controversy around Eskom’s application to extend the life of Koeberg Nuclear Power Station (KNPS) by 20 years past its original decommissioning date, it should be reassuring to know that the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) undertakes emergency preparedness and response drills to ensure public safety if an accident occurs at Koeberg, located just 26km north of Cape Town.

We certainly need this reassurance given the 110-metre crack Eskom reported finding in one of Koeberg’s containment buildings, and numerous other safety concerns revealed in Eskom’s “Safety Case for Long-Term Operation (LTO) of Koeberg Nuclear Power Station” report it submitted to the NNR earlier this year.

This is a report Eskom has tried its best to hide from the public. First by stating that the public had no right to see it, then releasing a highly redacted version after being instructed to do so by the NNR, and only after a Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) request and appeal, before finally releasing an unredacted version after a complaint to the Information Regulator and public pressure to do so.

This report makes it clear that the safety of extending the life of KNPS is subject to the timely implementation of numerous safety improvements, many relating to the ageing processes at the already 40-year-old power station. Eskom claims it is implementing the necessary safety improvements. For example, it recently stated that “all cracks and deficiencies on the containment buildings have been repaired”, but without providing any proof, we simply don’t know if this is true.

Given Eskom’s parlous financial position and its lack of transparency around safety issues, the emergency drills that take place are all the more necessary. Regulations state that Eskom is responsible for submitting an “emergency preparedness and response plan” to the NNR, which it must, through drills and exercises, demonstrate is effective. In fact, it is a specific condition of Eskom’s licence to be able to operate Koeberg.

The emergency plan must detail exactly how Eskom will respond to an accident and must include full details of how it will liaise with the City of Cape Town’s Disaster Risk Management Centre to work together to ensure residents are safe.

In addition, the plan must show how other provincial and national entities, such as security and health services, will ensure the effective operationalisation of the plan.

Critical Koeberg safety and coordination concerns

The NNR released a public report in July of last year on an exercise undertaken on 4 November 2022 which simulated an accident at Koeberg. Despite recording no less than 14 non-compliances from the emergency plan, the NNR concluded that the exercise demonstrated that “the responses are adequate to provide reasonable assurance that appropriate measures can be taken to protect the health and safety of the public in the event of an emergency at the Koeberg site”.

Despite this assurance, the NNR made some very worrying findings. It noted, among other things, that radioactive wastewater flowing from decontamination showers was not contained due to the correct equipment not being available; several emergency workers did not wear protective face masks; other emergency workers remained in the area of the simulated radioactive leak “for too long”; the Koeberg Medical Centre was not properly staffed; while the Mass Care Centre (MCC) was not established on time to accept accident victims.

This last finding is particularly significant, as MCCs are exactly where persons who may have been exposed to radiation are supposed to congregate after an accident at Koeberg.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Risk of total shutdown of Eskom’s Koeberg nuclear power station continues to increase

How poorly prepared the MCC was was confirmed by independent observers who noted that there was no security at the centre because the police did not arrive, while representatives from the Department of Social Development also failed to arrive even though a tent was erected for them.

In addition, simulated evacuees mingled with staff as areas had not been properly cordoned off while numerous staff members had no protective clothing on. In addition, the decontamination showers that were set up are designed for chemical and not radioactive contamination. That the MCC was not ready despite prior notice being given of the emergency drill is deeply concerning. These centres are where potentially thousands of people may have to go to be screened for radiation after an accident at Koeberg for which there will be, of course, no prior notice.

That the NNR found the results of the November 2022 emergency drill to be “adequate” sadly says much about the failure of the NNR to properly fulfil its mandate, as does its decision to give Eskom no less than six months to write a letter stating how it intends to address the concerns it identified.

Lack of compliance, lack of urgency

Eskom has, to date, provided no evidence that all the issues have been addressed. It is sobering to note that if any non-compliances are found in the United States during an emergency drill, the US Nuclear Regulator gives the operator 90 days within which to repeat the drill without non-compliances, failing which the operating licence is suspended.

These weaknesses on the part of the NNR as a regulator stem from its lack of independence from the promoter of nuclear power in South Africa, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE). Via its minister, the DMRE appoints the NNR’s board and CEO, approves its regulations, and allocates its budget and can override decisions made by the Board.

This arrangement directly contravenes Article 8 of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Convention on Nuclear Safety, to which South Africa is a signatory, which requires the separation of entities promoting and regulating nuclear power to avoid obvious conflicts of interest.

In 2013, after a “nuclear infrastructure review” in South Africa, the IAEA stated that “the separation between the regulatory functions and the promotional activities is not adequate, thus calling into question the effective independence of the integrated nuclear infrastructure review”. Despite repeated assurances from the government that this conflict of interest would be addressed, nothing has changed in the last 10 years.

Lethal failings

It is within this context that the NNR’s Annual Performance Plan (APP) for 2023-24 makes grim reading. It notes under its obligation to “maintain the implementation of regulatory programmes to assure effective nuclear safety regulation” that it experiences multiple “failures”.

These “failures”, some of which are listed as having a “major impact” on the NNR’s ability to undertake its work, are almost entirely due to budget shortages. The APP notes that the NNR only receives “minimal support” from the government to undertake its work, describing this budget shortfall as a “critical” issue for the NNR.

It could be disastrous at Koeberg because it appears that it is not only budget shortages that impact the NNR’s ability to undertake its necessary oversight work. In its 2023-24 APP, the NNR notes that it is being put under “undue pressure to finalise the informed regulatory decision for LTOs” (long-term operations). What this very clearly suggests is that the regulator is being pressured politically to conclude the LTO process at Koeberg. Both its systemic underfunding by the government and this apparent political interference in its operation are precisely why the NNR should not be located within the DMRE.

As for the LTO itself, the public has been given the chance to make their opinions known. Initially, the NNR only gave the public time over the holiday period in December and January to digest the (unredacted) 295-page long “Safety Case for Long-Term Operation (LTO) of Koeberg Nuclear Power Station” report and submit either written submissions or a summary of their oral submissions to the NNR for hearings in early February this year.

Under pressure from civil society, this box-ticking public participation, where the time allocated for participation is too short and at the wrong time of the year, was revised by the NNR to include more hearings in May and June of this year. It is critical that members of the public make their opinions known for we cannot allow the DMRE’s urgency to get the NNR’s approval for the LTO to compromise the public’s right to have a meaningful say on the future of Koeberg.

It is quite clear that for the public to have any confidence in the safe operation of Koeberg for another 20 years, the creation of an independent and effective regulatory body is critical, one that acts without fear and favour in the interests of all South Africans, rather than in the narrow interests of those who are intent on pursuing the LTO more for political reasons than anything else. DM

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  • Harro von Blottnitz says:

    Very well informed analysis and important call to action!

  • John P says:

    This makes me even more concerned with the idea of more nuclear facilities in South Africa, in particular of Russian origin. Does Chernobyl ring any warning bells?

  • James Larkin says:

    It should be realised that Eskom is not responsible for the management of any off-site consequences of a radiological release from Koeberg, that is the responsibility of the Disaster Management Organisation of the City of Cape Town. The issues at the MCC are completely outside of their control. The NNR can only comment on those matters over which they have no control such as the unavailability of the doctor.

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