Court Yanks Environmental Permit for South African Reactor

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, January 31, 2005 (ENS) - The South African government approval granted to power company Eskom to build a mini-nuclear reactor north of Cape Town was revoked Thursday by the Cape Town High Court on an application by Earthlife Africa, but the government says it will appeal the ruling and the power company says it will proceed with construction anyway.

Eskom intends to construct a demonstration model 110 megawatt Pebble Bed Nuclear Reactor in Koeberg, at the site of the only existing nuclear plant in South Africa. The technology is experimental, but Eskom says it is inherently safer than reactor technology now in use.


Crispian "Chippy" Olver, Director General (DG) of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, is stepping down at the end of February. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Earthlife Africa had argued that Crispian Olver, Director General (DG) of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, who authorized the plant, was obliged to afford them a fair hearing before deciding to grant the authorization, but that he failed to consider the nongovernmental group's submission.

The group argued that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on which Olver made his decision contained a number of documents that were not previously made available to the public, with Eskom maintaining that they were commercially confidential.

Judges Ben Griesel, Essa Moosa and Dennis Davis ruled that the June 2003 decision by Olver, which gave the environmental green light for the Pebble-Bed Modular Reactor, should be set aside because it was "procedurally unfair."

Writing for the three judges, Judge Griesel ruled, "... the DG made his decision without having heard the applicant and without even being aware of the nature and substance of the applicant’s submissions. In these circumstances, I am driven to the conclusion that the process that underlay the decision of the DG was procedurally unfair and falls to be set aside."

Earthlife Africa also argued that Eskom and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism did not properly address the problems posed by nuclear waste and that the DG abdicated responsibility to properly consider safety issues by deferring to the national nuclear regulator.

But the court decided that "it is not necessary to deal with" these two issues.

Instead, the ruling states that “the DG should allow Earthlife Africa and other interested parties an opportunity of addressing further written submissions to him,” and that the DG should consider those submissions before making a decision on the mini-reactor.


The Eskom nuclear power plant at Koeberg, South Africa's only one. (Photo credit unknown)
Earthlife is “very happy” with the judgment said Liz McDaid. "We believe that the PBMR will now be exposed for what it is - a white elephant where Eskom planned to use the people of Cape Town as guinea pigs to test a dubious technology,” McDaid said.

"With so many pressing social needs in our country, Earthlife believes that once Eskom's information is critically reviewed, it will be obvious to government that R15bn (US$2.53 billion) would be better spend on energy efficiency and implementing alternative energy options," the organization said.

But Eskom says the Cape High Court decision to set aside the environmental authorization for the reactor need not need not affect its deadline for the start of construction.

Eskom spokesman Fani Zulu told the South African Press Association that the company is working towards a sod-turning in the first quarter of 2007. "Therefore there's still room to reopen the environmental impact assessment and meet the deadline," he said.

The Department of Environment Affairs said it would appeal the Cape High Court ruling.

But the questions about the reactor at Koeberg originally raised by Earthlife Africa about radioactive waste and safety are still unanswered.

Eskom has not explained what will happen to some 760 tons of high-level radioactive waste that the Pebble Bed Nuclear Reactor is expected to generate. The company says only, "Koeberg will store all its spent fuel on its site for the lifetime of the station."

The company has not explained how it will ensure the health of residents in neighboring communities like Melkbosstrand and Blouberg.

PBMR, a South African nuclear power engineering company set up in 1999 to develop pebble bed modular reactors, plans to use the system at a plant to be built at Koeberg, near Cape Town.

PBMR is owned by Eskom, the Industrial Development Corporation and British Nuclear Fuels.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries signed a deal in December 2004 to design and develop a helium driven turbo-generator system, the major component of the Pebble Bed Nuclear Reactor.

"Successful operation of the pebble bed demonstration unit will lead to commercialization of the small-size, high-temperature gas-driven nuclear power generation systems," Mitsubishi said at the time.

South Africa plans to introduce at least eight modules, with the first commercial reactor to start by 2013, the Japanese firm said.

The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor generates power as helium gas is passed into the reactor and flows over the fuel pebbles in which a chain reaction is taking place.

Each sphere is about the size of a tennis ball and consists of an outer graphite covering and an inner fuel zone of uranium particles.


Drawing of the spherical fuel element of a pebble bed reactor (Photo courtesy European Nuclear Society)
The reactor is loaded with over 440,000 spheres at any one time. Fuel spheres are continually being added to the core from the top and removed from the bottom. Each sphere removed is measured to see if all the uranium has been used. If it has, the sphere is sent to the spent fuel storage system, and if not, it is reloaded in the core. An average fuel sphere will pass through the core about 10 times before being discharged.

The helium is heated to a temperature of 900 degrees and pressure increases to 69 bars inside the reactor. The heated helium gas flows through to the turbine which in turn drives a generator. The helium gas is then cooled and compressed before returning to the reactor core at 540 degrees. Water is used only on the cooling systems.

PBMR's are designed to produce 110 megawatts each which means that 30,000 average homes could be powered by one such reactor.

More than one PBMR can be located in a facility, creating energy parks. It is possible for a PBMR energy park to be made up of a maximum of 10 modules which share a common control centre, Eskom says.

"This system allows sequential construction of modules to match users' growth requirements; as the area grows, so more modules can be added to meet the industrial and domestic needs for electricity in an area," the power company says.

Transport of nuclear materials to serve the new reactor is a concern for Durban. The city's port and road network will be used to transport the materials to and from the Pebble Bed Nuclear Reactor in Koeberg.

Critics of the reactor say the city has no adequate disaster management plans for a nuclear accident.

The plant to make the fuel pebbles would be built at Pelindaba, near Pretoria, and the raw material, enriched uranium, will be imported through Durban.

Earthlife Africa's Vanessa Black says there are insufficient emergency services and disaster management plans should an accident occur.

Tons of fuel would be needed to fuel the first reactor, she said, but is even more concerned about the plan was to build 220 reactors, 200 of them for export.

Earthlife forsees many trucks transporting highly readioactive material on the roads from the Port of Durban, or Richards Bay, to and from Pelindaba.

"If plans to build these for export go ahead, each reactor will result in two trucks a day carrying pebbles over its 40 year life span. All these trucks will probably travel along the KwaZulu-Natal roads to export the fuel through our harbors," said Black.

Now that the High Court has set aside the PBMR environmental approval, Earthlife says it is time to reconsider all information available about the proposal.

"As a next step, it will be vitally important that this time around, all relevant information is made available to Earthlife Africa and other interested parties to enable them to comment meaningfully," said McDaid.

This should include the feasibility report produced by an international panel of experts, the nongovernmental organization says. "This report has been kept secret up till now and Earthlife Africa is now calling on Eskom and government to release the report."

Said McDaid, "Eskom is owned by the state, the PBMR is funded with taxpayers money and we believe that the public have a right to know."

Learn about Pebble Bed Modular Reactors from Eskom by clicking here.