Part one | How Koeberg’s history impacts today

The Koeberg site was selected for economic rather than safety reasons. But the population has grown and the government would do well to consider this before extending the life of the plant.

The ongoing controversy around the proposed 20-year extension to the life of the Koeberg nuclear power station only 26km from Cape Town brings back into sharp focus the decision-making that resulted in its construction.

Archives reveals several issues relevant to current debates about if it is right to extend the life of this ageing nuclear power station and procure new stations, as the government seems intent on doing. These include the selection of the site on which Koeberg was built; how the risk of a serious accident was considered during planning and construction; the impact racist apartheid policies had on planning and development; and spiralling costs. 

The idea to build a nuclear power station in Cape Town was first officially mooted in May 1968. This was after the nuclear power committee of the Atomic Energy Board (AEB) – now known as the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) – recommended to the government that a station be operational in the city by 1978. 

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Despite only being a recommendation, Eskom had already purchased Duynefontein farm – where Koeberg was eventually built – a year earlier. Eskom admitted as much in a glossy coffee-table book from 1994 called Koeberg: Eskom’s Nuclear Success Story, written by Stuart Murray and photographed by David Goldblatt, that was clearly part of a public-relations exercise to prevent the ANC from closing Koeberg. “The site for the first nuclear power station had been chosen long before, even prior to the publication of the nuclear power committee’s report,” it says.

As soon as its position became public in 1968, media reports lamented how close Koeberg was to Cape Town. To counter this narrative, Eskom and the AEB engaged the media to explain to the public that the station would be built to the highest international safety standards and include all necessary safety features. One of these features was the creation of “emergency zones” around the plant, which were conceived to limit public exposure to radiation and allow for residents to be evacuated effectively in the event of an accident. 

Arbitrary zones

The AEB proposed two zones in a series of site investigation committee meetings between 1969 and 1973 with representatives from Eskom, the Cape provincial administration, the Cape divisional council (the local government structure at the time) and various figures from the national government. The first emergency zone stretched five miles around the station and was described as a “low population zone” where development and population growth would be strictly controlled. 

This zone was where exposure to radiation would be most dangerous in the event of a serious accident, according to the AEB. Members of the site investigation committee agreed that it would be easy to control the population of this zone as surveys found no more than 200 people living in it, mostly in what a city official described as the “little village of Melkbosstrand”. 

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The second zone was 15 miles around the station and designated as an area within which, according to the AEB, there were to be no “major developments”. This proposal met with consternation from local and provincial officials. A representative from the provincial government said there were already “very large existing residential areas” within those 15 miles and that the AEB and Eskom “must be more realistic”.  The City of Cape Town’s chief engineer described the idea as “entirely impractical”, while another city official remarked that the city hall was 15 miles from the proposed site. Other local government officials asked why the nuclear plant was not located further up the West Coast, given the proposed 15-mile zone.

A compromise appears to have been reached in the early 1970s, when South Africa switched to the metric system and 15 miles suddenly became 16km, effectively reducing it to a 10-mile zone. The decision to simply change the size of the zone to accommodate the realities of Cape Town’s pre-existing urban sprawl reveals much about the arbitrary nature of these zones. If they were genuinely useful mechanisms by which residents living near nuclear power stations could be protected from the dangers of accidents, then Koeberg should have been positioned five miles further north rather than the boundary simply being reduced. There is little doubt that these “safety zones” play more of a political role than a public health one. 

Population growth

The archive reveals that Duynefontein was chosen for economic reasons above all else. Eskom’s public-relations division unwittingly admitted as much in its 1974 booklet Nuclear Power Comes to South Africa. In it, Eskom notes that while the Duynefontein site had several advantages, “the greatest is that it is reasonably close … to Cape Town, the major load centre”. This suggests that the cost of electricity transmission was the deciding factor. 

At a site investigation committee meeting in 1970, a representative from Eskom noted that transmission costs amounted to at least R80 000 a mile, so it “becomes a very large burden” to place a nuclear power station further away from its major load centre. This reasoning was confirmed in 1980 when an article appeared in the Civil Engineer journal, authored by employees from the AEB and Eskom. “Economic factors dictate that the power station be located as near as possible to the point at which the power is required,” it says.

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When the National Nuclear Regulator considers extending the life of Koeberg, it would do well to reflect on these realities and consider the population growth around the station. The “little village of Melkbosstrand” is now home to at least 12 000 people. The political ward into which it falls, Ward 23, is home to 30 000 people. At least 45 000 people live in Ward 32, east of Koeberg, including much of Atlantis. More than 160 000 now live within that 16km zone. 

These figures far exceed the expectations of those who built Koeberg. Can it convincingly be argued that these people will be safe in their homes or can be evacuated safely if a major accident occurs at the nuclear power station?

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