/ 23 March 2023

20 years to be added to Koeberg’s life

Eskom will go ahead with its plan to increase the Koeberg nuclear plant’s life span by 20 years, despite criticism from environmental groups concerned about nuclear waste management. Photo: David Harrison

Eskom will go ahead with its plan to increase the Koeberg nuclear plant’s life span by 20 years, despite criticism from environmental groups concerned about nuclear waste management.

Sources at the utility who are close to the matter have revealed to the Mail & Guardian plans to extend Koeberg’s lifespan are underway.

“Koeberg is a very critical plant for South Africa. Shutting it down will be detrimental. It will continue until 2044, and if it is still functional then, it will be given another 20 years. It is only people who do not understand that renewables are not reliable that want it closed,” they said.

The source added Eskom understands the environmental problems but said, “Eskom would die without the use of the nuclear plant.”

Last year, former Eskom chief executive André de Ruyter expressed a similar view: “Koeberg Nuclear Power Station is an important part of the Eskom generating fleet due to its reliable operation, low primary energy costs, its strategic location in the Western Cape to stabilise the national electricity grid and the fact that it is a clean source of energy.”

Koeberg, which was supposed to reach the end of its life next year, has been operational since 1984.

Last year, Eskom applied for a licence extension with the National Nuclear Regulator.

Environmental groups have argued that the plant is unable to safely dispose of its nuclear waste and this has become a major cause for concern.

On Tuesday, Eskom announced it had removed the first Unit One steam generator at Koeberg from the containment building and placed it into a storage building, a development that it described as a milestone.

The unit is on a planned maintenance outage to allow for the replacement of its steam generators. 

This is in line with the government’s Energy Action Plan Intervention One, which aims to ensure all power stations are well maintained and working optimally to prevent a further decline in energy availability.

Once the Unit One replacement is complete, Eskom intends pursuing a similar long-duration outage at Unit Two, leaving it without electricity production from half of Koeberg for most of this year. When this is complete, the units will return stable energy to the grid, Eskom believes.

The steam generator replacement project is a key part of Eskom’s plan  to extend the life of Koeberg by 20 years beyond its expiry date.

Eskom has maintained Koeberg is a critical component of the country’s energy mix, providing a stable source of baseload power that is essential for the economy.

In 2020, the government proposed a new policy that would increase South Africa’s nuclear energy capacity by 2.5GW. It was met with criticism from environmental groups, who argued the focus should be on renewable energy sources, rather than nuclear power.

Several civil society organisations,  including the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI), Project 90 by 2030, The Green Connection and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg have argued that while the electricity crisis needs urgent action, addressing it should not compromise citizens’ rights by continuing to use nuclear power. 

SAFCEI’s executive director Francesca de Gasparis said:  “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 endeavour.” 

De Gasparis added concerns range from the issue of a potential grid collapse due to load-shedding to concerns about the containment buildings, which prevent radioactive leaks, being compromised during the refurbishment of Koeberg.

Koeberg has been plagued by a series of maintenance and safety issues that have raised questions about the plant’s long-term viability. 

In 2019, Eskom was forced to shut down one of Koeberg’s reactors for almost a year after a fault was discovered in the unit’s cooling system.

Sources within Eskom said although nuclear energy is a necessary component of a diversified energy mix, it costs the utility over R10 billion a year to dispose of waste. 

The storage of nuclear waste at Koeberg puts a financial burden on Eskom. The utility is required to maintain the onsite pools where it is stored and ensure the safety of the waste, which requires significant resources. The longer the waste remains at Koeberg, the more expensive it becomes to manage and store.

Responding to questions, the utility said it has a robust system in place for managing nuclear waste.

The waste is stored on site in large containers and pools, awaiting a long-term storage solution. 

“The utility has been searching for a suitable site for a permanent nuclear waste repository for decades. However, finding a location that meets the necessary geological and environmental criteria, and also has the support of local communities, has proven to be a significant challenge,” said an Eskom source.

The pools, which were only designed to be temporary solutions, have been filling up over the years, and experts have warned that they are nearing capacity.

In 2017, Eskom was granted a five-year extension to store its nuclear waste in the pools, with the condition that it would come up with a long-term solution. But, with the deadline fast approaching, Eskom has yet to present a viable plan for the safe disposal of the waste.

“The failure to address the issue of nuclear waste at Koeberg is not only a threat to the environment but also to the safety of the surrounding communities. The waste, which is highly radioactive, can remain dangerous for thousands of years. If not stored properly, it can leak into the environment and cause serious health problems for people and wildlife alike,” said Earthlife Africa Johannesburg director Makoma Lekalakala.

Mandisa Nyathi is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.