The microphones at a two-day government ‘public consultation’ session had barely been switched off last week when Gwede Mantashe’s Department of Mineral Resources and Energy dashed out a media statement trumpeting plans for South Africa’s second nuclear power station — a 2,500MW facility larger than the Koeberg plant.
Not only did the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) welcome the apparent final decision by the National Electricity Regulator (Nersa) to authorise the new nuke project, but Gwede Mantashe’s team wanted to “further assure the people of South Africa that nuclear power is a safe, clean, reliable and affordable form of energy” and that it remained “committed to act with diligence and transparency” in implementing the new nuclear building plan.
Done and dusted and tied up with a bow?
Not by a long chalk, it seems, given the strong opposition to Jacob Zuma’s previous bid to procure a new nuke station from Russia’s Rosatom state atomic energy corporation at an estimated cost of R1-trillion. The new nuke proclamation coincides with Eskom posting an annual loss of nearly R19-billion in its latest financial results.
Nor had Nersa confirmed its decision in a public statement or published detailed reasons for the approval at the time of going to press.
Back in 2017, the Western Cape High Court overturned the government’s plan to procure a Russian-designed 9,600MW nuclear station (five times bigger than the 1,800MW French-designed Koeberg station north of Cape Town).
This was after Judge Lee Bozalek found that an intergovernmental agreement between Eskom and Rosatom in 2014 was more than just a broad nuclear cooperation agreement. At the very least, he said, it “sets the parties well on their way to a binding, exclusive agreement in relation to the procurement of new reactor plants”.
Four years later, the government’s plan for new nuclear stations is back on the table — along with reported plans by Eskom to extend the life of Koeberg for another 20 years.
Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that Eskom has hired the US-based Jacobs Engineering Group to upgrade Koeberg as part of a R20-billion plan to keep the nuclear power station operational until 2045. Eskom has not responded to Daily Maverick requests for confirmation and further details of the Jacobs contract.
Nor did Eskom comment on the approval of the new 2,500MW station, or the possible site locations for new nuclear stations.
Nevertheless, last week two separate “public consultation” meetings were held in St Francis Bay and Jeffreys Bay by the National Nuclear Regulator to discuss the suitability of a new site at Thyspunt on the Eastern Cape coast. Thyspunt, about 70km southwest of Gqeberha, is one of several sites Eskom has had on its nuclear expansion radar since the early 1980s.
Eskom documents propose that the Thyspunt site could be suitable for four designs — an AP1000 pressurised water reactor designed by Westinghouse Electric Company (US); an APR1400 advanced power reactor (designed in Korea); an EPR pressurised water reactor (designed jointly in France and Germany) or a VVER-1200 standardised Russian nuclear power plant.
Less than 24 hours after the Jeffreys Bay meeting, Mantashe’s department issued a media statement welcoming Nersa’s decision to approve the new 2,500MW nuke plan.
According to the department, this was informed by the government’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan to “commence preparations for a nuclear build programme to the extent of 2,500MW at a pace and scale that the country can afford because it is a no-regret option in the long term”. This 2019 plan promoted “an inclusive energy mix that encompasses various sources of energy such as coal, nuclear, gas, solar, wind, hydro and so forth… thus, nuclear energy is integral to South Africa’s future energy mix as a country”.
The department now aimed to complete the procurement by 2024.
Prior to the illegal Russian deal, South Africa also spent more than a decade pursuing the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. In the process, billions of rands were wasted (R9-billion was spent on research and development, while another R22-billion would have been needed to complete a demonstration model, according to the 2018 Greenpeace report: The true cost of nuclear power in South Africa.
Liziwe McDaid, one of the local activists who helped to derail the Russian proposal, has described the latest plan as a “dangerous distraction”.
“South Africa has been pursuing nuclear mirages for decades, moving from nuclear armaments in the apartheid era to increasingly expensive nuclear power options in the democratic era. Continuing to pursue nuclear dreams in a year of the greatest economic collapse in a century and the huge need for additional financial resources necessitated by Covid-19 is not only socially irresponsible, but also irrational and financially irresponsible,” says McDaid, who is also the parliamentary and energy adviser to the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse.
She notes that recent budget increases for the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA, despite its poor record of accountability, points to a real desperation to keep alive this nuclear mirage.
“The Fifth Parliament let South Africa down and seemingly fell asleep, complicit in the unlawful (Russian) nuclear deal. How will the nuclear mirage saga end? Will the Sixth Parliament remain a toothless watchdog, or will it play its role in ridding us of this dangerous nuclear distraction?” she wrote in a recent opinion piece in Daily Maverick.
This week, McDaid observed: “There is a lot of fanfare by the DMRE, but amid a veil of secrecy — and Nersa has not released its decision.”
“Nuclear is an expensive, capital-intensive option and the costs are recovered from electricity consumers — and if they can’t pay, the state has to bail Eskom out. The lessons from Medupi and Kusile are clear — way over budget and long delays.”
Rather than spending billions on a project that could take another 15 years to get off the ground, the country should rather invest in renewable options such as solar and wind projects that were cheaper and quicker to bring online,
“The disposal of waste and the decommissioning costs are supposedly built into the cost of nuclear power, but as we have seen with Eskom, the money is just a paper entry in the books and there is no money available… Should there be an accident on the scale of the Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters, insurance policies would not cover damage to local property while government liability insurance is not sufficient.”
Dr David Fig, an independent environment policy researcher and opponent of nuclear power, says he is not surprised by the DMRE’s latest pronouncement, despite the ruling by Judge Bozalek in 2017.
“Clearly Eskom is reviving the possibility of using sites at Thyspunt and Duynefontein (extension of Koeberg property) for the new build. There is also some talk of commissioning smaller high-temperature reactors which are still generally under development (with no track record) and resemble the size of pebble bed reactors which South Africa was unable to develop due to an absence of investors, markets and affordable design.”
Fig, who authored the 2004 publication, “Uranium Road — Questioning South Africa’s nuclear direction”, recalled how a small group of pro-nuclear scientists was able to persuade apartheid politicians to embrace a nuclear path several decades ago.
However, the post-apartheid government and members of the public should be very cautious about taking nuclear industry pronouncements at face value, he said, noting that the two existing Koeberg reactors came on stream in 1984-5 and will have reached their designated 40-year lifespan by 2024.
“Should they wish to continue operating, they will need to conform to new licence conditions. Such conditions have not been made public, nor has there been any announcement by the National Nuclear Regulator on the modalities of a transparent relicensing process.
“Nevertheless, Eskom has gone ahead (illegally?) and subcontracted a US company to extend the life of Koeberg”, despite reports pointing to the brittleness of the concrete and other safety problems linked to the deterioration of Koeberg.
“When requested from Eskom, these documents were issued but severely redacted, making it impossible for the public to determine the full extent of the problems, and no credible or publicly revealed efforts have been made to undertake a full costing of what an extension of Koeberg’s life would be.”
Two other civil society groups — the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg — are worried that the latest nuclear push will further stifle the development of renewable energy projects.
“Government’s own researchers acknowledge that renewable energy is the lowest-cost option, and in line with global trends. Yet DMRE seems adamant about thwarting implementation of renewable energy,” says SAFCEI executive director, Francesca de Gasparis.
“We could install renewables now and reduce possible energy bottlenecks in 2024, and in the process our energy needs will be addressed in an inclusive and equitable way. It seems that the president’s announcement to increase the threshold of embedded generation from 1MW to 100MW is not being taken forward elsewhere in government, serving only as a distraction from the big-ticket items extending and increasing nuclear energy, which take forever to build and are well known to run over cost,” she said.
Earthlife director Makoma Lekalakala commented: “Based on last week’s poorly organised public hearings, organised by the National Nuclear Regulator, it is clear that government is not committed to meaningful engagement with the public, as required by the Constitution.
“While public hearings are an opportunity to better understand the implications and potential impacts of installing a new nuclear power station or extending the lifespan of an old one, it seems to have become nothing more than a box-ticking exercise.”
Lydia Petersen from the Koeberg Alert Alliance said: “Eskom has a less-than-stellar power plant maintenance track record — consider the recent explosion at the Medupi coal-fired power station — and I believe that the public are justified in our concerns about the state utility’s ability to safely run Koeberg past its sell-by date, or to initiate plans for any new nuclear.”
Back at Eskom, the national utility remains deep in the red — with seemingly no choice but to do the bidding of its political masters.
Earlier this week, in an interview with Business Day TV, chief executive Andre de Ruyter faced some awkward questions around the utility’s growing debt levels and implementation of policy.
Did this cause him frustration?
“Umm… No…” he responded, “I think that’s part of the job. That comes with the territory of being owned by government. We are an instrument of state and we do what our shareholder tells us.” DM/OBP