Big concerns over nuclear safety in South Africa

Neil Overy, a Research Associate in Environmental Humanities at the University of Cape Town, says Koeberg Power Station’s safety standards are lacking.

Speaking to 702, Overy said Eskom is bankrupt and cutting corners to keep the lights on, foregoing a significant power station upgrade designed to mitigate the consequences of a core meltdown.

Koeberg is the only nuclear power station in South Africa, and it is a critical component of the country’s electricity generation mix.

The Koeberg Power Station’s generating units have been undergoing maintenance to replace their steam generators, work that is critical for extending their life by another 20 years.

Eskom completed the work on Koeberg’s unit one generator in November 2023 and took the second unit offline for similar work in December.

However, Overy says Koeberg won’t get upgrades that are aligned with the latest nuclear power station standards.

French nuclear power company Framatome built Koeberg’s two nuclear reactors with the same design as 18 reactors in France.

These reactors are also having their lives extended. However, the safety requirements for extending the life of the reactors in France are significantly more robust than in South Africa.

Koeberg’s and the French nuclear reactors are considered generation-two reactors, while the rest of the industry has moved onto generation-three reactors.

“You can’t create a generation-three nuclear power station out of a generation-two one,” said Overy.

“But lessons have been learnt from nuclear accidents in the intervening period, and France is upgrading certain elements within the nuclear power station that is not taking place at Koeberg.”

He explained that the French nuclear regulator has identified one element — the “core catcher” — as a non-negotiable upgrade for generation-two reactors.

The core catcher is designed to mitigate the consequences of a core meltdown.

Overy described the core catcher as a bowl that sits under the reactors to stop molten core, or corium, from leaking onto the ground and into the water below.

Diagram of core catcher in the European Pressurized Reactor. Source: Wikipedia.

“Eskom is saying we don’t need that here,” he added.

Overy explained that other safety aspects are being compromised at the Koeberg Power Station.

He said these issues relate to ongoing maintenance, with one aspect being testing the pressure of containment vessels.

“If there’s a major accident within the containment vessel, you don’t want it to explode or leak in any way,” said Overy.

He added that the French nuclear regulator has said these pressure tests must be conducted every five years.

However, in its application to the National Nuclear Regulator, Eskom says it will conduct pressure tests every 10 years.

Another concern is that the French will only license extensions of nuclear power stations of this design for 10 years.

In comparison, Koeberg Power Station is applying for a 20-year licence.

“I think that one of the reasons why the safety standards are not being adhered to in the same way in South Africa is because Eskom is bankrupt, and Treasury isn’t going to push any more money its way,” said Overy.

“There’s also a desperate need to keep the lights on.”

However, he noted that the risk of a nuclear meltdown in South Africa is minimal.

Despite this, if there were to be a nuclear accident in South Africa, Overy said the consequences would be catastrophic.

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Big concerns over nuclear safety in South Africa