Eskom turnabout on latest technology raises safety concerns


In a startling turnabout which threatens to throw its nuclear build programme into disarray, Eskom is opting for cheaper but less safe technology as pressures mount around the costs, estimated at R1-trillion.

And to add to the growing nuclear build debacle, the electricity utility’s sudden change of mind on the technology it wants has triggered a warning that the entire evaluation process around the programme will have to start from scratch.

The call yesterday from Eskom head of generation Matshela Koko for “a proven and affordable” generation two (gen ll) option rather than the much more expensive but safer generation three (gen lll) technology, comes amid increased pressure from the Treasury and civil bodies around costs.

Koko’s call comes on the eve of the official launch of the procurement process by Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, who announced last month she would issue a request for proposals at the end of this month.

Her announcement provoked outrage from the DA and nuclear watchdogs who argued that the litigation against the minister regarding her alleged secret deal with Russian state corporation Rosatom and the environmental assessment of the nuclear programme – based on gen lll technology – should first be completed.

Meanwhile a date, December 13 and 14, was set this week for the court challenge against the minister after it was applied for a year ago by the Southern African Faith Communities Environmental Institute (Safcei) and Earthlife Africa (ELA).

And the period for the public to comment on Eskom’s application for a site licence for Thyspunt has been extended to October 1 after the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse pointed out that the opportunity for comment was not properly advertised by Eskom in the Eastern Cape government gazette.

Bay-based NoPENuke spokesman Gary Koekemoer said yesterday Koko’s standpoint, contained within a new declaration by Eskom that it will pay for the nuclear programme, was a “fundamental shift”.

“Each step in the evaluation process so far, from the environmental impact assessment itself through licensing and procurement, has been premised on gen lll. “So all these processes would have to be started again.”

In an interview with Business Day yesterday, Koko said Eskom was on track to accumulate R150-billion which would be deployed to fund the nuclear build programme.

He argued for gen ll and not gen lll technology, saying, “don’t go for cutting edge – it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg”.

Koekemoer said gen lll technology included a new double concrete casing for the reactors capable of withstanding the impact of an aircraft, and an automatic shut-down mechanism in the case of melt-down or if generators were swamped.

Because of the increased safety attributes of gen lll it includes a buffer zone of just 3km for reactors compared to the 16km demanded for gen ll technology as at Koeberg.

“So while gen lll is the latest and safest tech, it is hugely expensive. Gen ll is cheaper but far more dangerous,” he said.

“Given the minister’s agreement with Rosatom, which we know happened, it seems not unlikely that the Russians will now come up with a deal on a couple of gen lls that they’ve had lying around.

“We will be told they’re cheap – but it will be us taxpayers who will have to pay back the money in the end. “Either way, the DOE [Department of Energy] is responsible for nuclear procurement – so I imagine they’re pretty p’d off with Eskom.”

A request for comment was sent to the DOE but no response was received by the time of printing. Meanwhile an initial DOE statement issued to rebut the Mail & Guardian exposé last week headed “Zuma pals clinch nuke deal” has been whisked off the DOE website.

The story described a R171-million contract for a nuclear management system given to Empire Technology, which is headed by Shantan Reddy, the son of Vivian Reddy, a long-time friend of the president.

A reliable source told Weekend Post yesterday that the detailed DOE statement, which contained a list of service providers already ostensibly awarded tenders to assess nuclear readiness, had been taken down because it “prompts more questions than it answers”.

It has been replaced on the website by a terse assurance that the department “will defend and protect the integrity of all aspects of the procurement process”.

The initial rebuttal, which Weekend Post has had sight of, rejects “suggestions of bias or irregularity ” and details 13 service providers, including Empire Technology.

According to deputy directorgeneral for nuclear energy Zizamele Mbambo, who signed the statement, the department has already contracted these companies in line with the injunction of the National Development Plan to “investigate the implications of nuclear energy” prior to the issuing of procurement tenders.

Koekemoer said the withdrawal of this initial statement revealed again the paucity of coordination and integrity in the government’s nuclear programme.

“Related to this, the International Atomic Energy Agency visited South Africa in 2013 and, after a standard state-of-nuclear-readiness investigation, issued a report. We believe the report was not complimentary and this is why the department has refused to let us see it.”

NoPENuke, Thyspunt Alliance, Safcei and ELA regarded the withholding of this document as suspicious and this was one of matters that would be raised in the court case against the minister.

“So they are withholding this report from the international nuclear body – to which South Africa is a signatory and which demands transparency from all its members – yet they have appointed 13 new service providers to do the same thing. Why?”

The department was further being disingenuous because the NDP’s call on nuclear was simply for a national discussion on the issue, he said.

Koekemoer said it was significant that as controversy around the programme was reaching boiling point, South Africa was celebrating Heritage Month.

“Beyond the argument against the economic feasibility of nuclear, Thyspunt is unsuitable as a site because of its huge environmental and human heritage.”

International research involving NMMU had found that early Stone Age hominids, the direct forebears of the Gamka Khoisan and ancestors of all humankind, lived on the Agulhas Plain from Mossel Bay through to Thyspunt, he noted.

“This is the cradle of mankind and we should protect it as a world heritage site, not sacrifice it to a nuclear reactor.”

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