Another earthquake – what are the risks for Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant

Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant

According to the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei) and the Koeberg Alert Alliance, the increase in seismic activity on the Milnerton fault line should be a major cause for alarm around the risks to the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant, especially since the news that Eskom has plans to extend the life of the plant by another 20 years past its original lifespan.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Cape Town was once again hit by an earthquake. This is the third earthquake in less than two months and this time with increased intensity, measuring at 3.5 magnitude.

This is considerably more intense than the 2.3 and 2.5 magnitude quakes experienced about a month ago.

Koeberg Alert Alliance’s Peter Becker says, “Last month, we raised our concerns when the first two earthquakes were brushed off by Eskom as no cause for alarm.

“But now, with a third and more intense earthquake, South Africans need to be aware of  the risks associated with an aging nuclear plant so close to a fault zone and densely populated areas.”

The Council for Geosciences issued a tender [CGS-2020-033A], in October 2020, for a study of the seismic risks at the Koeberg site.

“It seems we are not alone in our concerns about how safe Koeberg is from earthquakes.” says Becker. “Clearly, the Council for Geosciences also sees a need for more research into this risk.”

Koeberg was built during the late 1970s with a design life of forty years. It began operating in 1984 and is scheduled for shut down in July 2024. It was the first nuclear plant built with earthquake protection in the foundations in the form of a concrete ‘raft’ resting on neoprene rubber pads.

Later designs include horizontal fail safe buffers, but this was not done for Koeberg. That means that if the rubber pads do not perform as expected, or if there is an unexpectedly powerful earthquake, it could result in the foundation cracking.

One question as Eskom plans to extend the life of Koeberg is whether the neoprene pads will last for another twenty years in a marine environment?

The Koeberg Alert Alliance has been denied access to a 2017 study, which assessed the seismic risk at the Koeberg site, by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR).

Becker says, “If this study was reassuring, why has the regulator and Eskom chosen to keep it secret? We were also not permitted to observe the Koeberg emergency readiness exercise, last month, which tests the effectiveness of the emergency plan. Not even virtually. There is a worrying trend, by Eskom and the regulator, of keeping information from the public.”

He says, “We know that an unexpected earthquake can cause a nuclear reactor meltdown. Why should Capetonians live with the fear of that happening? Koeberg contributes so little to the electricity generated in South Africa that it is not worth the risk of keeping it running. Keeping it running for twenty years beyond its designed lifetime would be playing Russian Roulette.”

Safcei’s Executive Director Francesca de Gasparis says, “Important questions for people living close to the plant should be, can we trust Eskom to put the people first in its decision-making about Koeberg?

Has Eskom considered what will happen if we are hit by a massive earthquake on this existing earthquake fault, so close to our only nuclear power plant?”

“We know from the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, citizens were told not to worry, and that the government and the nuclear plants had everything under control. Yet, these are two of the biggest nuclear catastrophes of our time.

“Are we willing to take that chance with Koeberg when the information that should be in the public realm is being kept hidden? Firstly, the plant is old and secondly, we have no information about its current state. What if the next earthquake is even more powerful, which some scientists are saying is more than likely?” says de Gasparis.

“In a worst-case scenario, the Koeberg Evacuation plan would have to be implemented, and tens of thousands of people, possibly millions of people, would need to be evacuated. And since radioactive contamination can make an area uninhabitable for hundreds of years, where would all these people find housing?

“Or schools for their children? Will there be enough services or jobs there, to cater for these new inhabitants? These are important questions which should be addressed in the open, with sufficient reliable evidence available for public scrutiny,” adds de Gasparis.

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