Koeberg nuclear power plant should be closed

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The recent comments by Eskom COO Jan Oberholzer on what is going on at the Koeberg nuclear power plant were refreshingly frank, and for that he is to be commended. Whether someone living near the factory – and that includes everyone in and around Cape Town – can sleep after fully digesting what they have to say is another matter.

Speaking to the press on Eskom’s status as the summer months approach, Oberholzer said he was “extremely concerned” by the two visits to Unit 1 of the Koeberg reactor (August 30 and October 24 ). He added that he was “horrified” by the number of employees who had left Koeberg in recent times, “taking with them years of experience”. Some had quit when they had no other job offers. Rumors abound that there have been as many as 200 resignations from Koeberg recently.

To this can be added the suspension of Koeberg’s CEO in June for unspecified “non-performance”, although it appears to be linked to maintenance failures. Let us also add the recent failed safety test, which led to the evacuation of part of the plant because it was contaminated by a radioactive isotope used during the test. It is not yet clear whether this contamination was the result of incompetence or the failure of Koeberg’s aging infrastructure.

Eskom Managing Director Andre de Ruyter recently confirmed what was already well known: There were skills shortages and staff morale issues at Koeberg. How concerned should Capetonians be about this apparent chaos?

Violation of the agreement

South Africa is a signatory to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which, under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “seeks to commit contracting parties operating land-based civilian nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety by establishing fundamental safety principles. ”.

Article 11 of this convention is relevant to the current concerns about Koeberg. It states two things. First, it states that contracting parties “shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a sufficient number of qualified personnel who have received appropriate education, training and retraining are available for all security-related activities”. Given that Oberholzer is “horrified” by the number of executive resignations at Koeberg, what assurance do we have from Eskom that he is not violating this provision?

The second section of article 11 specifies that the contracting parties “take appropriate measures to ensure that sufficient financial resources are available to support the safety of each nuclear installation”. We all know that Eskom has a debt of 400 billion rand. 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 embezzle vast sums of money that had been set aside. for the maintenance of its gas turbines to try to keep the lights on. to. In view of this, Eskom could also violate this section of Article 11.

Shortages and deficiencies in the regulator

Eskom’s operations at Koeberg are overseen by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), which exercises, among other things, regulatory control “related to site safety, design, construction, operation, component manufacturing, as well as decontamination, decommissioning and shutdown. nuclear installations ”. But the evidence seems to suggest we cannot be sure the NNR will prevent a crisis in Koeberg.

The first problem concerns the location of the NNR within the government. He sits in the Ministry of Mineral and Energy Resources of nuclear fanatic Gwede Mantashe, the same department that promotes nuclear energy. International best practice is to house regulators elsewhere. In South Africa, it would make sense to house the NNR within the Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Department.

Second, there are internal problems with the NNR. It is also experiencing staff shortages and budget shortfalls. Its vacancy rate hovers around 10% and it struggles to recruit the types of experienced staff necessary for its operation. Its last two annual reports indicate that salary expenditure at the NNR is declining, in large part due to “staff movements and delays in filling vacant posts”. Even though the NNR informed the Convention on Nuclear Safety in 2019 (during the evaluation of South Africa’s Eighth Nuclear Safety Convention) that it was aware that it had to “increase its staff. “. This claim was made just before the National Treasury imposed a moratorium on the recruitment of new staff by the NNR as part of its austerity policy. Incidentally, in that 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 called on parliamentary control committees and the Treasury to increase its operating budget. The organization says it is financially compromised due to the inability of Eskom and South Africa’s state-owned Nuclear Energy Corporation to timely pay their nuclear license fees, which constitute the bulk of NNR revenues. Bismark Tyobeka, Managing Director of NNR, said in 2019 that “providing continued and effective regulatory oversight of nuclear safety to a financially constrained industry in South Africa remains a challenge.” Tyobeka repeated this claim in May this year, saying staff shortages caused by budget cuts threatened the “viability of the NNR in terms of regulatory expertise”.

Aging infrastructure

It is quite clear that we cannot assume that the NNR has the financial and human resources to properly regulate what Eskom does and does not do in Koeberg. As if that weren’t enough, we also need to reflect on Eskom’s intention to extend Koeberg’s life beyond his scheduled shutdown date.

One of the important risks identified by the research undertaken by the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Austria on life extension of nuclear power plants is the danger that institutional knowledge is lost through the passage of time and staff turnover. . This is clearly a very real danger with Koeberg. Another risk identified by the group is that modernization will never come close to preventing aging processes in nuclear power plants. He suggests that “the negative effects of aging could be countered by stepping up inspections and surveillance,” which Koeberg seems unlikely.

When Koeberg was done, Reg Coogan, then Cape Town’s medical practice, rose and left town for Gordon’s Bay. But leaving is of course not a solution. The solution is to shut down the aging and failing Koeberg as originally planned and replace it with renewable energy sources. It is the only decision worthy of the 21st century. DM / OBP

First published by New Frame.


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