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Is Eastern Cape nuclear tender a red herring to pull focus from Koeberg?

Announcement over procurement of 2,500MW of nuclear power has no rational basis

Eskom's Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town.
Eskom's Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town.
Image: SUNDAY TIMES

There may just be a bitterly cynical logic behind the department of mineral resources & energy’s absurd announcement that intends to put the procurement of 2,500MW of nuclear power at Thyspunt out to tender. There certainly isn’t any practical logic.

Eskom’s own CEO, André de Ruyter, stated in November that “if you start to look at the capital cost of building new nuclear and you look at the time associated with that, it will take you 12 to 15 years to bring new nuclear online and it will probably cost you about R1.80/kWh. So, when you compare that to new wind, at about 70c/kWh, and you look at solar photovoltaic electricity, which is about 60c/kWh, and the fact that you can bring wind and solar online in about 18 to 24 months, the decision kind of makes itself, even if you ignore any environmental considerations.”

Not to mention the fact that the department’s own electricity master plan, the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), states that we will only need to evaluate whether to procure nuclear power after 2030. So why push for a solution we cannot afford and will take too long to build at a site that does not even have any environmental authorisation?

Perhaps it has something to do with the announcement earlier in August by New York Stock Exchange-listed Jacobs Engineering, that it has been “selected to carry out essential engineering modifications as part of a $1.2bn programme to extend the operating life of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant near Cape Town”.

The nuclear regulator only admitted that it had received Eskom’s application to extend the life of Koeberg on August 25, yet apparently the scope of works was defined and a contract issued without its approval. Neither Eskom nor the regulator has released the contents of the application, which would include a safety case with clear importance to the 4-million Capetonians who would be affected by a Fukushima-type accident.

Licence expires

Designed in the 1960s, Koeberg lacks several safety features required in all new reactors subsequent to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The facility’s operating licence expires in 2024, and a new licence is required from the national nuclear regulator for it to operate beyond that. This licence will specify the extent to which modern safety features must be retrofitted to reactor buildings, and the process of granting the licence, including those specifications, is subject to public comment. These comments must be taken into account before a final decision can be made by the regulator. Yet somehow the contract to do the refurbishing has already been granted.

The Koeberg Alert Alliance (KAA) recently released an Eskom document that revealed how 40 years of exposure to sea air has damaged the concrete of the containment buildings. At one stage the concrete containment dome was found to have cracked around the entire 110m circumference. According to the alliance, “the containment buildings are the outer shells of the reactor buildings, built as pressure vessels to withstand the pressure if the reactors inside them ever malfunction and therefore prevent harmful radiation being leaked into the environment”.

Concrete degradation

In a report so heavily redacted that it would make apartheid era censors blush, Eskom found that the “current interventions are neither ideal nor sustainable”. It goes on to state that the repairs are “nonstructural and only about 11% of the structures’ surfaces have been rehabilitated. The areas adjacent to the patched areas will now corrode at an accelerated rate.”

It says that there is “no routine maintenance basis” for the structures, with “significant delays to repair concrete degradation”.

There is clearly skulduggery at play here, and it seems the aim is to draw all the attention to a pie-in-the-sky project at Thyspunt, while the real objective is to push through under the radar a highly questionable process at Koeberg.

• Maguire holds a master’s degree in global change studies from Wits and has been developing green economy solutions for the private sector, NGOs and the state for more than a decade.


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