Durban - The national Energy Department has confirmed its ambition to build one or more new nuclear power stations in KwaZulu-Natal to feed the growing demand by energy-intensive industries in Durban, Richards Bay and other areas of the province.
Although national government officials have declined to discuss possible locations for new nuclear power installations, it is understood that KZN government officials have earmarked the old Durban International Airport site as a potential option because of its proximity to the South Durban industrial zone – the second-largest industrial manufacturing hub in the country.
In the late 1980s, Eskom also announced plans to investigate future nuclear power station sites in the coastal zone between Salt Rock and Port Durnford (just south of Richards Bay), but these plans were later abandoned in favour of three sites in the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape provinces.
Passing reference to new plans for KZN nuclear power stations came to light at Zimbali earlier this week during a Department of Energy briefing on nuclear procurement.
Elaborating on the announcement on Wednesday, the department’s nuclear energy deputy director-general, Zizamele Mbambo, told The Mercury it was too early to discuss potential site locations in KZN. Nor would he comment on the old Durban airport site as a possible option.
However, he confirmed that the department hoped to build between six and eight new nuclear power stations along the South African coastline within the next 15 years – with the first nuke plant up and running within the next eight years (most probably in the Eastern Cape).
The announcement has been greeted with anger and dismay by civil society and environmental groups. The Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry did not respond to requests for comment.
Bobby Peek, director of the groundWork environmental justice group, said: “It’s not just a question of the serious risks of nuclear explosions and accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima or the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ geographical issues. Quite simply we should not be investigating any energy options that we know will bankrupt us and which are premised on false economic growth projections.
“We will be looking very closely at the legal implications of the latest developments because the government is making decisions in an undemocratic way. These are political decisions – yet what corporate and political elites want is not necessarily what the country needs.”
Elaborating on the rationale for the recent inclusion of KZN for new nuclear power stations sites, Mbambo said previous Eskom nuclear power site options had been confined to Thuyspunt in the Eastern Cape, Duynefontein in the Western Cape and some sites in the Northern Cape.
More recently a technical task team had recommended the need for a “thorough investigation” to find locations for some of the six to eight new nuke plants in KZN.
Mbambo said the current investigation in KZN was restricted to desktop studies and no field work had been done yet to assess issues such as geological stability (earthquakes), tsunamis, floods and other site-specific environmental impacts.
The primary motivation to locate new nuclear generation in KZN was because most of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations were in Mpumalanga, resulting in significant transmission losses as electricity was transferred over long distances via power lines. These losses could be reduced by locating plants closer to areas of high demand in KZN.
Because nuclear stations also needed large volumes of water for cooling, coastal locations were preferable.
Although Mbambo said there was still “a long process” to be followed in investigating potential sites in KZN, the government hoped to generate at least 26% of national energy from nuclear sources before 2030, with the first new nuke station commissioned by 2023.
It could take five years or more to complete the KZN site selection process.
Asked to comment on reports that the KZN provincial government took a decision four years ago to include a nuclear power station as a possible land use option at the old Durban airport site, Mbambo said: “At this stage I can’t give details on whether it would be the old airport site (or anywhere else) because the geotechnical site characterisations have not been done.
“It’s crucial that we allow the process to take it course regardless of whether it’s the North Coast or the South Coast.”
He added that geological stability studies would be done in accordance with guidelines by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Asked to comment on the size of the likely safety exclusion zone around new nuke stations, Mbambo said more modern Generation Three power plants required much smaller exclusion zones than the Koeberg power station that was commissioned in 1984.
Koeberg has a 5km safety exclusion zone, along with a further 16km radius exclusion zone where developers have to demonstrate viable safety and evacuation plans.
During an environmental impact assessment process into nuclear expansion proposals four years ago, Eskom suggested that an 800m exclusion zone was adequate around new pressure water reactor (PWR) stations, but said the size of the final exclusion zone would be determined by the National Nuclear Regulator.
High-level nuclear waste is currently stored at Koeberg, while low- and intermediate-level waste is buried in drums at Vaalputs in Namaqualand, in trenches 7m deep.
According to anti-nuclear lobbyist Dr David Fig, nuclear waste remains dangerous for at least 240 000 years.
In his book Uranium Road – Questioning South Africa’s Nuclear Direction, Fig says: “If there were no alternatives it would be easier to understand support for nuclear power. Yet we do have other feasible options – especially in the dynamic fields of renewable energy.”