June 2003

Green light for new nuke plant in Cape Town

The Cape Times, South Africa, 27 June 2003
By Melanie Gosling

Original address: http://www.capetimes.co.za/index.php?fArticleId=177905

[Posted 30/06/2003]

The government has given the green light for a controversial multi-billion rand pebble bed nuclear reactor to be built at Koeberg north of Cape Town.

Yesterday Chippy Olver, director-general of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, said environmental impact studies showed the proposed nuclear power plant was "acceptable".

Olver also approved environmental impact studies for a nuclear fuel plant to be built at Pelindaba in North West pro-vince to supply the new reactor.

Construction of the reactor, a pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR), cannot begin until it has been given a licence by the National Nuclear Regulator, which controls nuclear safety.

Close to a billion rand has already been spent on the PBMR project. Once the pilot PBMR has been built at Koeberg, Eskom plans to build others for export, a project running into many billions of rand.

Olver's approval is subject to several conditions, the main one being that the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs develops a policy to deal with high-level nuclear waste. Olver said he had been assured that a draft policy was "imminent".

Olver's decision comes after a three-year environmental impact assessment process that has been criticised by environment groups and the City of Cape Town as being flawed. Olver said he had found the impact assessment complied with all the legal requirements.

Olver said: "A lot of objections were on policy matters which fall under the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs. It is not the job of an impact assessment to deal with the question of whether South Africa should pursue nuclear energy, nor is it in my ambit to decide on matters of nuclear safety." Eskom welcomed the decision as a major step towards completing the feasibility phase.

"This paves the way for the next phase of a locally-driven, leading edge nuclear technology project," Eskom spokesman Fanie Zulu said yesterday.

Questions have been raised as to who will buy the PBMRs Eskom intends to build for export. The US nuclear company Exelon, which had guaranteed to buy 30 or 40 of the plants, pulled out of the project last year. British Nuclear Fuels (BFNL), Eskom's other project partner, is being reorganised and possibly privatised. BNFL was to design the fuel for the PBMR.

Steve Thomas, an energy policy expert from the University of Greenwich who sat on the PBMR review panel convened by the government, said yesterday: "Exelon was Eskom's trump card which has fallen away. There is no prospect of Eskom selling the PBMR in Britain after the white paper on energy, and BNFL is in no position to make a long-term commitment to the PBMR."

He said Eskom had "scaled up" the design of the PBMR twice. The current design was 25% larger than the original.

"This is ironic for a design whose selling point was it small size. The project is a risk with no clear markets, no clear design and with the risks likely to fall squarely on the shoulders of the South African taxpayers."

Liz McDaid of Earthlife Africa said: "The department has put the cart before the horse by giving the go-ahead without waiting for the outcome of issues like waste policy and safety."

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