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

This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick on 17 Nov. 2021. It can be viewed here.

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. 

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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? 

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.

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”.

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.

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