More than just a cost issue, secret decisions about Koeberg could result in more harm than good

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For years, the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) has been raising awareness about cost and safety concerns associated with Eskom’s plans to extend the lifespan of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant by a further 20 years. The energy crisis, which is now on stage 6 until further notice, continues to escalate and the government's continued insistence to invest in nuclear energy - despite independent analysts saying it is unaffordable - is putting our future energy sustainability in jeopardy.

According to recent research - shared with the Treasury in July - fears about the inevitable ballooning costs have become a reality, contradicting Eskom’s persistent claims that the project is still within budget. The multi-faith organisation also cites cost and affordability as two of its main reasons for opposing Eskom’s recently-revived plans for a new nuclear plant in Duynefontein (adjacent to Koeberg).

SAFCEI’s Executive Director Francesca de Gasparis says, “As recently as last year, Eskom insisted that the (total) price tag to  refurbish Koeberg would still be R20-billion. This is the same amount originally costed in 2010, despite there having been many unforeseen costs that would likely see this amount increase. There were  the replacement steam generators, which had to be remade  due to issues with the initial replacements. Then there are also the media reports that Eskom had to pay penalties of just under R1-billion to Framatome for wasting their time. And we also need to take exchange rate losses from the Rand into consideration.”

The supposedly ‘extensive presentation’ made to the Minister of Electricity, Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, by the project team leading the Koeberg refurbishment fails to zero-in on the most crucial aspect of the project – how much the project will cost the country. “It is inconceivable that a project team can run a project without cost projections. Not at all possible. How did they secure approvals without the costs? No formal structure operates like that. There is a whole procurement process in government and it does not involve blank cheques. When the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) shared its findings, in June, that there is no room for new coal or nuclear in South Africa’s energy mix we thought finally sense prevails. But clearly not. Despite this sound recommendation we are still locking eyes with the extension of Koeberg, in addition to a renewed threat of a new nuclear power station at Duynefontein,” says De Gasparis.

Since it was first announced, the multi-faith eco-justice organisation has been questioning the feasibility of refurbishing Koeberg, particularly when considering the cost and safety implications. It is this lack of transparency in decision-making and weak governance which lies at the heart of the matter and which SAFCEI believes has led to South Africa’s all-but-failed energy systems, in the first place.

Chair of SAFCEI’s Board, Braam Hanekom from the Dutch Reformed Church, says “We recently concluded a very exciting meeting between SAFCEI and the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum, on the climate crisis and nuclear energy. On the Koeberg issue we are very worried about the cost of the refurbishment, the length of the process and the undisclosed hidden costs. This includes questions about how the high-level radioactive waste at Koeberg will be disposed of. As people of faith, who celebrate our Earth with gratitude and appreciation, our question is, would it not be better to use the money that is going into refurbishing an old plant which uses harmful technology to instead extend and upgrade our grid, for solar and renewable energy? That R20-billion could have been used for such a purpose.”

According to de Gasparis, in the face of the rising costs to refurbish Koeberg, national treasury’s commitment to take over R254-billion of Eskom’s debt, should be a major concern for citizens because if the government is not successful in generating the expected revenue, the only option they will have is to repurpose funds from elsewhere to fulfill the commitment. Does this then mean that Koeberg will be made priority over other service delivery responsibilities, even while there are renewable alternatives which can provide the required energy supply?

According to Mark Swilling, the Chair of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, any  new plans for the development of new nuclear energy cannot be funded. It is too costly. De Gasparis says “when Unit 2 tripped in April – while Unit 1 was already down for a planned outage – we were faced with ridiculous stages of load shedding and there was no electricity supply coming from Koeberg at that time. We will not be exempt from such situations during the refurbishing of Unit 2. We reject calls for more nuclear power because the costs will be passed onto electricity users in their monthly bills. The issue of cost is also one of the main reasons SAFCEI opposes Eskom’s plans to extend the lifespan of Koeberg. From the research (gathered with the help of a variety of academics, energy and other experts and activists), it is clear that Eskom underestimated both the costs it would incur and the time it would take to meet the requirements of its re-licensing application. It is the users of that electricity who will have to make-up for the shortfalls in Eskom’s budgets.”

“South Africa has an opportunity to not only retire dangerous and harmful forms of energy but also to ensure that today’s youth and future generations can look to their predecessors/ancestors with pride, knowing we built a future for them that has clean and affordable energy powering it. Instead, we are going backwards, depleting the state’s coffers in the process, likely taking funds which should go to improving health and education services for South Africans. Already we are seeing much uncertainty regarding government funding for social services to our country’s most vulnerable. This is why we urgently need a clear plan to address the energy crisis in sustainable ways and not indebt future generations with unaffordable energy systems which will plunge us deeper into the climate crisis,” concludes de Gasparis.