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SOUTH AFRICA'S PBMR NIGHTMARE CONTINUES

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#639
09/12/2005
Article

(December 9, 2005) The move to increase nuclear power within South Africa with Eskom's proposals to build a Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) demonstration plant at Koeberg, near Cape Town would lead to the export of over 200 of these reactors and to at least another 10 being built around South Africa.

(639.5737) Earthlife Africa - But still, it is difficult to see how Eskom projections can be met by a supply technology that is yet to get off the drawing board, that does not have necessary government legal approvals and that is still desperately seeking investors.

Earthlife Africa (ELA) took the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism to court in January over the decision to approve the PBMR Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and won. (See WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 623.5663 "Earthlife victory on PBMR EIA") The court agreed that the EIA process was fatally flawed and the decision was overturned. The draft EIA that was circulated for comment was substantially different to the final EIA on which the decision was made and the submissions made by appellants were not even read by the decision maker.

Since the court ruling Eskom has taken a decision to increase the output of the Demonstration Plant from 302 to 400MW (thermal). This will result in changes to the proposed layout and fuel requirements amongst other things.

This cannot be dealt with in an addendum to the previous EIA report and a new application by Eskom was submitted on August 29 and a new EIA process with the normal scoping and EIA phases will now be followed. Interested and Affected Parties will have another opportunity to participate and comment on the PBMR and then the department will make a new decision. However, the consultants used in the first flawed EIA process are being used again the second time around, just under a different name! (Formally Afrosearch now Mawatsan)

ELA will be part of this process performing their watchdog role to ensure that the process is followed correctly and that sufficient information is provided to ensure that meaningful participation is possible.

Eskom provided insufficient information, including on issues of safety and economics, thus no meaningful participation was possible in the previous EIA. Despite ELA requests, Eskom refused to supply the information on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Earthlife Africa took Eskom to court in August in an attempt to gain access under the Access to Information Act but the judgement has not yet been made. However, during this case Earthlife received some information from Eskom, which Eskom claimed contained trade secrets and was given by mistake. Eskom got an Interdict against Earthlife Africa preventing them from publishing, disseminating or otherwise dealing with the information received in a desperate attempt to undo their mistake. (See also WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 634.5715 "South Africa: Earthlife gagged for Eskom blunder")

ELA believes that it is vital that this information is made available to government and that it is in the public's interest to know what the documents contain but now cannot reveal the contents because of the apartheid-style decree silencing it.

The PBMR project is officially ten years behind schedule, with the demonstration plant expected to be completed by 2013, and costs are escalating alarmingly. R2 billion (around US$315 million) has already been spent and it is expected to cost another R12 billion (nearly US$1.9 billion) to complete. No orders have been placed and no foreign investors have been found. Parliament recently approved the expenditure of an additional R580 million (around US$91.5 million) on the PBMR even though the EIA has yet to be approved. PBMR Company is continuing to secure contracts with overseas companies even though the EIA process has not yet been completed nor the licence for the plant issued.

The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism commissioned a feasibility study by an International Panel of Experts on the PBMR in 2002, which has not yet been published.

The Legal Resource Centre has commissioned an economic study on the PBMR by Steve Thomas, one of the International Panel of Experts and a senior research fellow at the University of Greenwich. The paper has been peer reviewed by the ex-US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, who has supported his conclusions.

His conclusion is that the project is financially risky and entails a significant risk of waste of a substantial amount of public money. Further expenditure needs to be carefully and independently appraised to prevent wasting money on a costly white elephant that is already costing 12 times more than originally stated to Parliament.

Source and contact: Olivia Andrews at Earthlife Africa, Cape Town, olivia@earthlife-ct.org.za