A new report released by Eskom reveals that the concrete of the containment buildings at the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station has been damaged by 40 years of exposure to sea air. At one stage, the concrete containment dome was found to have cracked around the entire 110-meter circumference, according to the Koeberg Alert Alliance (KAA).

This building surrounds the reactor buildings and is designed to contain the escape of radioactive steam or gas in the event of an emergency.

“The containment buildings are the outer shells of the reactor buildings, built as pressure vessels to withstand the pressure if the reactors inside them ever malfunction and therefore prevent harmful radiation being leaked into the environment,” says DR, a member of KAA and a retired analytical chemist, whose name was anonymised by KAA.

“Where the chloride salts have entered, they have caused corrosion of the reinforcing steel bars, resulting in spalling and delamination of the concrete – it is even more alarming than I thought,”

In 2020, the KAA made two requests under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) legislation for reports on chloride damage to the concrete reactor containment domes, and damage to the stainless steel used in the structures of the plant.

Eskom took 143 days to respond to the request, despite PAIA stipulating that a response must be “as soon as reasonably possible, but in any event within 30 days”, which can be unilaterally extended to 60 days.

The recently released 31-page report has 11 pages entirely blacked out and various other sections, photos and tables redacted with the reason given as “sensitive technical information”.

“All these documents are in electronic form and instantly retrievable. Perhaps the reason they take so long is the extensive debates they have internally about just how much they can get away with redacting,” says KAA’s Peter Becker. “They give reasons for the redactions such as ‘Opinion’, and ‘Sensitive technical information’ which do not seem justified.”

“Eskom are aware that to challenge these redactions in court requires a budget of hundreds of thousands of rand, which most civil society organisations cannot afford.”

According to the University of Johannesburg’s Physics Professor, Hartmut Winkler, the first big redact is titled History/Background and presumably describes past failures and recent damage that KAA’s PAIA was interrogating.

“Why should the ‘History’ be sensitive due to technical information when the less redacted sections are full of technical details. The most puzzling redact to me are the references which are supposed to be publicly available documents, so why are they all being hidden?” questioned Winkler.

“Do they expose some entities that Eskom does not want anyone to know have been involved with Koeberg and why? I would also query why the financial information would be redacted. Surely the public has a right to know how much money certain components cost, and what Eskom paid for them?”

“What is particularly of concern is that the expenditure for the necessary repairs to the containment structures are redacted,” adds Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) Parliamentary Advisor, Liz McDaid. “In effect, this means that we don’t know how much money Eskom has planned to spend on fixing this particular problem so why should South Africans be locked into unknown costs to keep an ageing nuclear power plant going.

“All of these costs will be passed on to the electricity consumer to cough up. Therefore, South Africans need a proper prior informed consent process to decide if they want to extend the life of Koeberg or close it down now,” says McDaid.

The report seemingly contradicts Eskom’s safety claims that the two reactor containment buildings are designed to ensure that no radiation escapes under any conceivable circumstances.

The report reads: “This (chemical threat) phenomenon was not fully understood when the structures were designed. It is clear that the original designers did not fully comprehend the severe environmental attack which the structures would be subjected to in a harsh marine environment. As such, major reinforcement corrosion has occurred on parts of the outer surfaces, leading to concrete delamination and spalling.”

However, on Friday [February 12] Eskom released a statement saying that the Koeberg containment building is capable of withstanding the most severe accident.

The report further states that there is currently “no routine maintenance basis” for the structures with “significant delays to repair concrete degradation with the net result that large patches amounting to approximately 10% of the containment building surface area have delaminated and chloride ingress extends past the rebar cover depth. If left unattended, corrosion of the post tensioning ducts can be expected.”

“What is in the report is deeply disturbing and contradicts claims of safety,” says Becker. “There should be no need to hide the extent of the damage or the associated costs of the repairs. There is a great need for transparency from Eskom as the proposed 20-year extension of Koeberg’s lifespan and additional nuclear builds are being debated.

“It is a well established legal precedent that public participation can only be considered meaningful if the public are fully informed. By a pattern of delaying and obstructing public access to information, Eskom are pre-emptively undermining the meaningfulness of public participation in the life extension application for Koeberg,” says Becker.

According to KAA, Eskom has not as yet provided any details on if and when any permanent repairs have taken place since this report has been performed.

Eskom has said it will formally apply to the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) in 2021 to extend the life of the Koeberg plant 20 years beyond its designed lifetime.

“Koeberg’s safety is a matter of public interest, especially for the 4-million Capetonians who live and work in Koeberg’s shadow,” says environmental sociologist and long-standing observer of the nuclear industry, Dr David Fig.

“If Eskom is not prepared to trust the public with information on Koeberg’s safety problems, how can Eskom expect the public to endorse Eskom’s current plans to extend the life of the reactors?”

De Gasparis concurs: “SAFCEI believes that Eskom’s lack of transparency, in terms of what they share when responding to PAIAs, is hampering citizens’ ability to be more active in the decisions that are being made by government, on their behalf. We feel that the overall poor response to PAIA requests should be seen as a violation of the PAIA Act.”

The KAA is calling for the Koeberg power plant to be permanently shut down as planned in 2024 at the latest. They argue that a major nuclear accident at Koeberg could have devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people.

Any public debate about extending the life of the plant needs to be informed by a full disclosure about issues that have been found there so far,” they conclude.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons / Pipodesign Philipp P Egli

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