Part five | How Koeberg’s history impacts today

It would be remiss of South Africa to ignore the parallels between Koeberg’s conception and the extension to the nuclear power station’s operating life being planned today.

“In terms of a new nuclear policy for South Africa, we do need to know about our history,” said Abdul Minty in his keynote address at the ANC’s 1994 conference on nuclear policy. 

Archives show how Koeberg’s development served political ends and influenced apartheid urban planning, and reveal how authorities have never taken seriously potential accidents at Koeberg and that the power station has never been economically viable. They also reveal other significant issues. 

One relates to how nuclear power is regulated in South Africa. 

The planning and construction of Koeberg largely went ahead without any independent regulatory authority because the Council for Nuclear Safety, the precursor of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), was only created in 1982, five years after construction had begun. It had a miniscule budget and only produced three-page annual reports for the first few years of its existence, meaning it is unlikely that it played any meaningful oversight role at Koeberg until the latter 1980s. 

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Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe seems to hark back to this unregulated era. His recent comment that the NNR’s board should not have an “anti-nuclear” member indicates that he either does not understand the role of the NNR or is wilfully trying to undermine its regulatory responsibilities. 

The NNR’s job is not to promote nuclear power in South Africa, that is the role of the government-owned South African Nuclear Energy Corporation. Rather, as the NNR Act states, its role is to “provide for the protection of persons, property and the environment against nuclear damage through the establishment of safety standards and regulatory practices”. So it is consistent with this objective for there to be a member who is opposed to nuclear power, to add a healthy balance to a board that has a strongly pro-nuclear member from the energy department. Anyone interested in the safety of South Africa’s nuclear installations must surely welcome the more rigorous decision-making that will result from having differing opinions on the board?

The parallels between his recent paranoid comments about mischievous foreigners and “liberal” media houses intent on “destabilising” his department, because of its pro-coal and pro-nuclear stances, and apartheid-era paranoia are worth noting. Compare his comments to a Financial Mail newspaper editorial from July 1979 attacking those who opposed Koeberg. It lambasted the “ill-informed … radical chic” who were under the influence of “all sorts of covert or even unconscious sources of their passions”. 

Parallels can also be found between the decision in the late 1960s to go ahead with Koeberg and the replacement this year of the steam generators at the power station. 

Other options

The construction of Koeberg began in 1977, despite modelling of the various risks the plant posed to Cape Town continuing well into the 1980s. The Atomic Energy Corporation of South Africa was undertaking wind modelling in 1982 to see if radiation plumes from a serious accident would endanger the city. Given that hundreds of millions of rands had already been spent on the site by the early 1980s, it is unclear what this modelling was for as there was little chance that Eskom would abandon the site if adverse wind conditions were found. In fact, wind modelling discovered that for approximately 15% of the year, northwesterly winds would push a radioactive plume into Cape Town, which is precisely why the medical officer for health for the City left with his family for Gordon’s Bay.

Eskom went down a similar road with the steam generators. It had already spent a significant portion of the R20 billion necessary for this upgrade, even though it did not have the NNR’s permission to extend the plant’s life. It clearly anticipated that the NNR would simply rubber-stamp the extension, and this appears to be exactly what happened. The NNR recently gave permission for the steam generators to be replaced, despite Eskom having failed to finish the containment building to house the highly radioactive steam generators being replaced – a failure that led the contractors tasked with the replacement to leave the site amid safety fears. Both examples suggest that public accountability regarding Koeberg is more a performance than a reality, as decisions get taken that cannot be undone without significant financial losses. 

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The history of Koeberg also reveals that even from the late 1970s, opponents of the power station pointed to renewable energy alternatives even though that industry was in its infancy. A member of the Cape Town utilities committee who was opposed to Koeberg said in 1976 that there was “an urgent need for more research projects to be undertaken into the use of other energy sources such as solar power”. Similar assertions were made throughout the period and when it emerged that electricity from Koeberg would be more expensive than other sources, a Cape Times editorial said Koeberg could be dispensed with as “coal, conservation and the use of renewable resources such as the sun, wind and waves could provide enough power for South Africa”.

That renewables can provide all the power Koeberg generates today, and that any new nuclear power stations can offer, is now beyond debate. That we are still having these conversations 30 years later shows how strongly various groups are looking to protect their economic and political interests, no matter how urgently we need a just transition to renewable energy in South Africa. 

Nothing normal about nuclear

The attitude that existed towards nuclear power and the dangers of radiation in the years before Koeberg’s construction is notable. 

Eskom’s chairperson made the bizarre suggestion in 1972 that the warm water that flows back out of Koeberg be discharged into “lagoons or bays”, which could then “provide all-year-round bathing and boating on South Africa’s cold western sea”. This idea surfaced again in 1976 from an Atomic Energy Board representative, who went further still by saying that the warmer water could also be used to develop an aquaculture industry as the plant would provide “optimal temperature for growth and high yields of fish and seafood”.

The late sociologist of risk Ulrich Beck said “hazards which come into existence with the blessing of technological and state authority place authorities and policymakers under the permanent compulsion to assert that these hazards do not exist”. This is precisely why proponents of nuclear power try to normalise its existence with absurdities such as those detailed above, and incongruities like the “nature reserve” that surrounds the power station – not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who now live in its shadow. These attempt to normalise the exceptional result in situations where, to quote Susan Sontag, “unremitting banality and inconceivable terror” live side by side.

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In reality, there is nothing “normal” or “everyday” about nuclear power. Even if we accept that the chance of a serious accident is “extremely remote”, what Chernobyl and Fukushima demonstrate is that losses can be unimaginably colossal, collapsing any notions we previously had about what can be controlled and managed. The risk associated with building a nuclear power plant or, worse, extending the life of a technologically outdated and ageing plant is always immense. It is this huge risk that led Eskom to admit that yet another technical blunder that took place recently at Koeberg “could have had devastating consequences”.

This is not a risk with which we must live. We can and must reject nuclear power because a serious accident at Koeberg would have catastrophic social and economic consequences for South Africa.

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