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ENVIRONMENT-SOUTH AFRICA: Concerns Over Nuclear Plans Unheeded

Thessa Bos

CAPE TOWN, Dec 11 2006 (IPS) - Despite recent controversies over the Koeberg nuclear power plant near Cape Town, locals in the coastal city have shown little resistance to the South African government’s plan to build another nuclear reactor on their doorstep.

Last year the area was hit by several successive power failures. Indications were that a loose bolt which damaged a non-nuclear gas turbine at Koeberg was one of the causes. Maintenance has also been a problem at the plant.

The National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) has since clashed with power parastatal Eskom, the owner of Koeberg, about human error and negligence at the plant.

Complicating matters further is the choice of Koeberg as the preferred site for the construction of a pebble bed modular demonstration reactor. This process has also been contentious. (The fuel of the pebble bed reactor consists of small particles of uranium, each coated with four layers of hard ceramic material, which are embedded in graphite to form a pebble about the size of a billiard ball.)

In 2003, the environmental watchdog organisation Earthlife Africa took the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism to court after it had given the green light for the construction of the pebble bed reactor without proper public consultation.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA), which forms the basis of the authorisation, was set aside by the Cape high court because it was “procedurally unfair”.

This led to a new EIA process in August 2005. Although Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) Pty Ltd, the company which will construct the reactor, is keen to start building as soon as possible, it first requires a licence from the NNR. It also needs a positive decision from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, based on the EIA.

Both the NNR’s investigation and the EIA process require extensive stakeholder involvement. In addition to public meetings in accordance with the EIA, Eskom and Earthlife Africa held separate information meetings in the communities around the plant.

However, Barbara Rass, a member of the community of Atlantis who has attended these meetings, says she is getting more and more confused. Atlantis is a poor community 35 km from Cape Town. It was established during the apartheid era to accommodate “coloureds” (people of mixed race).

“Eskom and Earthlife Africa seem to have their own agendas. I’m getting so many mixed messages. I don’t know what to think anymore.”

She is also concerned about the low level of public interest in the issue in Atlantis. The general lack of knowledge on nuclear and safety issues in her community is preventing people from participating in the public debate.

“People do not pitch up at meetings. Even when the local radio station invites people to call in to express their opinion on the matter, there is little response. People do not care because they do not know,” says Rass.

“If you do not know what it is about, you can neither criticise nor say it is okay.”

Proponents of the pebble bed reactor argue that such reactors are more cost-efficient, quicker to build and safer than conventional nuclear reactors. They consider pebble bed reactors to be “inherently safe” because, in case of an accident, they shut down automatically.

However, according to Maya Aberman from the Cape Town branch of Earthlife Africa, there is no such thing as “inherent safety”. “Dr Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb (hydrogen bomb), said that sooner or later a fool will prove greater than even a foolproof system. People make mistakes and, as a result, accidents happen.”

She points out that “many nuclear accidents have happened as a result of human error”. She also contends that pebble bed nuclear technology is largely untested. “To test it 35 kilometres north of Cape Town’s 3,5 million population is simply too big a risk.”

But Tom Ferreira, spokesperson for PBMR Pty Ltd which will be constructing the reactor, argues that the technology has been tested. “The pebble bed modular reactor concept is based on experience in the U.S. and Europe – specifically Germany, where reactors of this type were successfully operated between the late 1960s and 1980s.”

The German reactor, which operated from 1966 to 1988, was decommissioned due to political considerations and because it had fulfilled all planned research experiments. Klaus Töpfer, a former nuclear power and environment minister who was instrumental in shutting down the German pebble bed reactor programme in the late 1980s, has said he felt he made a mistake in halting the programme.

In another bid to increase the flow of information about the project, Earthlife Africa sued Eskom last year to gain access to minutes of its board meetings.

The estimated costs of the demonstration plant increased fivefold from around 283 million dollars in 1999 to 1.4 billion dollars in 2004. Currently, the costs are estimated to be in the region of two billion dollars, says Aberman.

As Eskom is a public entity using tax payers’ money for the reactor, Earthlife Africa argued that the public had a right to know whether the project was safe and cost-effective. However, the court allowed Eskom to keep the information confidential to protect its business interests.

It is estimated that South Africa needs over 47,000 megawatts of additional power generation capacity in the next 20 years. Apart from building between 20 and 30 pebble bed reactors for power generation within South Africa, PBMR Pty Ltd aims to export the reactors.

Pebble bed reactors have a generation capacity of 165 megawatts each, which is small compared to the existing Koeberg units’ capacity of 900 megawatts each. According to Ferreira, the size of pebble bed reactors enables countries to build capacity piece-meal and in line with demand. It also allows for the reactors to be built closer to points of demand.

At a conference in October this year, Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin said the ability to build pebble bed reactors where they are needed will save developing countries from the need to build costly large power grid systems.

PBMR Pty Ltd aims to start construction of the demonstration plant in 2007 and to complete it in 2010, thus allowing the first commercial pebble bed reactors to be available from 2013.

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