Gray Maguire Columnist
Eskom's Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Eskom's Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Winston Churchill once wrote that the actions of Russia were a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He could easily have been writing about our department of mineral resources & energy.  

In the same month that the reversal of the environmental authorisation and withdrawal of South Korean partner Kepco put the nail in the coffin for Thabametsi coal-fired power station, the National Energy Regulator of SA invited public comment on pie-in-the-sky plans to procure 2,500MW of new nuclear generation capacity.

This unrequited love affair with nuclear was heralded by the Nuclear Industry Association of SA in May when it went to the trouble of trotting out six “potential options for financing” this proposed new nuclear build.

Fortunately for us, Eskom CEO André de Ruyter is not buying it. Last week he went on record saying 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.”

But ignore these “environmental considerations” we must certainly not, as a very major one is being assessed. This is the pesky little issue that is Koeberg nuclear power station, whose 40-year operating design life will come to an end in 2024, whereupon two major possible futures lie before it.

The original intention was that it joins the 169 units globally that are awaiting, or are in various stages of the roughly 20-year decommissioning process. International experience on decommissioning suggests a ballpark price tag of at least R23bn for a facility such as Koeberg, with no return on investment other than the health and wellbeing of the population of Cape Town.

Exactly how pricey remains a mystery due to the lack of disclosure on the decommissioning plan required in section 17.2 of Koeberg’s operating licence, originally issued by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) in 1984 and now in its 19th iteration.

Attempts to access this required plan have only been able to unearth a “Decommissioning Strategy” which itself refers to a proposed “Decommissioning Plan” of which no details are available. However, the strategy document does state that Eskom can delay returning the site to a “greenfield”, fully decommissioned status by either extending the life of the plant or building a new nuclear facility on the site, if safety allows. Given the steep decommissioning price tag it is little wonder that the department released new draft regulations in June to extend the operating lifespan of Koeberg by another 20 years.

One could be forgiven for assuming that provisions for the safe extension of the facility’s lifespan had already been approved some years back, given the delivery of its first replacement steam generators in September. In fact, Eskom only confirmed “preliminary talks” with the NNR regarding an extension in July, and it will only make a formal application for a licence for “long-term operations” at Koeberg in 2021.

This will be cold comfort to Capetonians, who have experienced three minor earthquakes in the past two months and should be asking some serious questions about the seismic stability of the site, built just 8km away from SA’s most destructive fault line. Worryingly, the NNR has refused access to its 2017 seismic stability study and questions have been raised about the neoprene pads providing earthquake protection to the concrete “raft” supporting the foundations and their ability to extend 50% beyond their original design spec in a marine environment.

• 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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