Fatally flawed, plans to extend the lifespan of Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant by another 20 years

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With little more than a week remaining until the deadline for public comment (16 March) on Eskom’s proposal to extend the functioning of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station - for an additional 20 years, until 2044 and 2045 for Units 1 and 2 respectively - civil society is calling for its closure in 2024 at the end of its lifespan. Concerns about the submission process not allowing for “meaningful and fully informed public comments” are being voiced. Several civil society organisations - including the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI), Project 90 by 2030, The Green Connection, and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg – agree that while the electricity crisis needs urgent action, it should - and can - be addressed without resorting to continuing nuclear power. Furthermore, the eco-justice organisations highlight several flaws with the process, particularly in terms of the lack of information available to the public, which has thus far been heavily redacted to facilitate meaningful public participation.

Summing up the key concerns, SAFCEI’s Executive Director Francesca de Gasparis says, “It has not only been the lack of information for the safety case which has been a major obstacle to proper public involvement in this very critical and far-reaching decision, the problems we’ve seen at Koeberg over the past few years and, the unreliability of the grid and the alleged levels of corruption in Eskom affect the feasibility of this proposed endeavor. Concerns range from the issue of a potential grid collapse (due to loadshedding), to concerns about the containment buildings that protect us from radioactive leaks are further exacerbated by the fact that to refurbish a nuclear power station parts that cannot be replaced without weakening the integrity of the structure would need to be accessed.”

Since touting the idea to extend the lifespan of Koeberg (since around 2015), Eskom has initiated a number of significant ‘maintenance’ projects, including the replacement of the steam generators, the refueling water-storage tanks, and the Unit 2 reactor pressure vessel head to the cost of billions of rand without any public participation. However, according to several experts the extension of Koeberg’s plant life is ill advised because of these serious questions about the stability of the electricity grid and load shedding, coupled with the risks at a nuclear power plant without a stable supply. Other serious concerns include the risks of long-term radioactive waste storage offsite at Vaalputs in the Northern Cape, and at Koeberg, and the condition of the infrastructure to extend the life of the plant, in addition to the environmental and climate impacts, all of which impact both people and the planet.

“Meaningful public consultation should be central to such major decisions. This is why South Africa needs a national Integrated Energy Plan (IEP) that is developed in a consultative manner and which all South Africans can buy into. It would allow all communities the chance to understand what we would need to ensure energy security, so that in the future, we do not end up in the crisis that we find ourselves in now. We need safe, affordable, and reliable energy – in our view, it is questionable that extending the life of Koeberg will guarantee that – and we want an opportunity to have our say,” says The Green Connection’s Strategic Lead Liziwe McDaid

In January 2023, The Green Connection and SAFCEI  initiated a legal challenge for  President Cyril Ramaphosa to bring Section 6 of the National Energy Act into operation, and for the Minister to develop an Integrated Energy Plan (IEP) in terms of that Section. Such a plan would integrate economic, environmental, political, and social interests and set the context in which energy-related decisions should be made. The IEP is provided for in the National Energy Act, assented to by Parliament and promulgated in 2008 and  imposes an obligation on the minister of mineral resources and energy to compile and annually review an IEP (with fully informed and meaningful active public consultation) has not yet been brought into operation by the President.

Lydia Petersen, a faith leader in Cape Town is concerned about the cost of the extension, as well as the growing pools of high-level radioactive waste at the site. She says, “According to Eskom, the project was estimated to cost R20 billion, and it is likely to be significantly higher as this amount was projected in 2010. Extending Koeberg for another 20 years is a waste of money because of the high cost to safely manage and store the nuclear waste – for which there remains no safe and permanent means of disposal. Citizens should be made thoroughly aware of the risks and should have a right to be involved in such far-reaching decisions.”

SAFCEI’s Wayne du Plessis says, “The entire process to extend the life of Koeberg has been characterized by secrecy and insufficient information. What is particularly troubling is that, even with these and other facts, in a recent media briefing on 20 February 2023, Eskom stated that the process for Koeberg was not changing and therefore no new, updated Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was necessary. Yet, from the population changes in that area alone, one can see that a new EIA is undoubtedly necessary. This is fundamentally the basis of our complaint, to defend the people’s right to procedurally fair administrative action and uphold their rights.”

“We have an opportunity as a country to not only retire a dangerous form of power and a legacy of the apartheid era, but also to ensure our youth today and future generations can look to us with pride as we build a future that has clean, and affordable energy powering it (renewables). Join us as communities, youth, and civil society organisations, as we call for the suspension of not only the submission period, but for the suspension of Koebergs Life Time Operation!”, says Youth Activist and spokesperson of Project 90 by 2030 Gabriel Klaasen.

According to Earthlife Africa Johannesburg Director Makoma Lekalakala, “In a recent report the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised no less than 15 ‘issues’ regarding Eskom’s adherence to IAEA Safety Standards and international best practise regarding plans to extend the life of Koeberg nuclear power station beyond its original decommissioning. This report, which remains deeply concerning given that most of the issues are related to critical safety at the plant, presents Eskom with two options. Either abandon the extension plans altogether or strictly adhere to the IAEA Safety Standards and international best practices. Eskom seems determined to extend the life of Koeberg, despite providing no economic case for doing so and failing to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on the life extension as is standard practice in other countries.”