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Nuke hearings: Eskom safety plans ‘f lawed’

Academics and civil society groups have poked holes in Eskom’s application for a licence for future nuclear power at Thyspunt near Cape St Francis in the Eastern Cape. 

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The National Nuclear Regulator’s (NNR) public hearings began on Wednesday. Some lobby groups and activists were locked out when the venue reached its Covid-19 capacity.

A licence for the site is one of many the utility will have to secure before any plans to procure additional nuclear power materialise. This is in line with the Nuclear Energy Policy of 2008. The South African Renewable Energy Masterplan of 2019 states that South Africa will develop nuclear power at the scale and pace it can afford. 

Eskom has said it is cash-strapped. 

The site licence hearings are held by the nuclear regulator because it is critical from a safety perspective. A nuclear site, for example, must have a low risk for seismic activity and tsunamis as well as consider the threat of a rise in the sea level.

The NNR has received 5 500 written submissions. The call for public comments closed in July. 

The National Energy Regulator of South Africa is yet to agree on a section 34 determination for new nuclear power. Environmental groups told the hearings that a decision in favour of that will probably result in a court challenge. 

South Africa’s nuclear expertise goes back to 1957 and the country is a founding signatory to the International Nuclear Atomic Energy Agency. 

“There is a lot of scepticism around state-owned entities but there are pockets of excellence,” the NNR’s Thapelo Motshudi told the hearings, adding that South Africa has experience in nuclear safety and that the agency is highly regarded globally. 

Eskom officials told the hearings that about 20 years of research had gone into nuclear site suitability. They said no reasons were found that suggest Thyspunt was not a viable option for a new build.

But academics disagreed and pointed out flaws in Eskom’s public information documents, including outdated population data that is important for emergency evacuation plans. 

Among the submissions was one from a coalition of environment NGOs whose representative pointed out that Eskom has identified a 800m to 3km safety radius around the proposed plant despite nuclear disasters showing that the radioactive exposure is much larger. 

In the 1986 Chernobyl explosion in Russia, for example, the radiation was picked up in Sweden, more than 1 100km away. 

“It [also] does not take into account earthquake and flooding risks in local university reports,” said Gary Koekemoer, chairperson of the Algoa Bay branch of the Wildlife and Environment Society. 

He pointed out that Eskom had used 2011 population data, which greatly reduced its risk assessment.  Eskom plans to use a 16km route for evacuating several settlements that only have one route out, and that route is home to a bridge at risk of floods.

Maggie Langlands, the vice-chairperson of the St Francis Kromme Trust, asked Eskom officials why the public information document was 20 years old and the wind estimates a decade old. 

Wind plays a role in the direction and spread of nuclear radiation and would also need to be assessed in the context of nearby wind farms. 

But Eskom said that a detailed study of the site shows that there are  no factors that would disqualify the site.

Earthlife Africa’s Makoma Lekalakala said Eskom had a history of rushing through mega projects. She said the Medupi power station in Limpopo was an example of what happens when information is withheld from the public. 

“The heritage, cultural and religious rights of the people of the area are being totally ignored as well as the Heritage Act. There are sacred sites of the original people of this area,” she said.

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Tunicia Phillips
Tunicia Phillips is an investigative, award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast for 10 years. Her beats span across crime, court politics, mining energy and social justice. She has recently returned to print at the M&G working under the Adamela Trust to specialise in climate change and environmental reporting.

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