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Earthlife Africa Sues for Public Power Giant's Nuclear Plans

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, July 4, 2005 (ENS) - A South African environmental group is taking the country's government owned electricity giant Eskom to court to obtain more information about a new nuclear reactor planned for Koeberg near Cape Town, where Africa's only nuclear power plant is situated.

Earthlife Africa, based in Cape Town, has been notified that the High Court will hear its case against Eskom in Johannesburg on August 30.

The lawsuit challenges a decision by Eskom to refuse Earthlife Africa access to minutes of the company's Board of Directors meetings concerning the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). The minutes are requested under South Africa's Access to Information Act.

power plant

Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant at Duynefontein, 27 kilometers north of Cape Town on the Atlantic coast. (Photo courtesy Eskom)
The reactor uses new technology and is planned by the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor company, a joint venture between Eskom, the Industrial Development Corporation and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd.

The PBMR is a new type of high temperature helium gas-cooled nuclear reactor. Proponents claim it is much safer than current nuclear power plant designs.

Each PBMR currently is designed to produce 110 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 30,000 average homes, Eskom says. 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 center.

This system allows sequential construction of modules to match users' growth requirements. As an area grows, more PBMR modules can be added to meet its industrial and domestic needs for electricity.

Earthlife Africa believes that "issues of safety as well as the economic case for the PBMR must have been discussed at Eskom Board level."

"As Eskom is a public entity, and the taxpayers are increasingly being asked to support the development of this PBMR project, Earthlife Africa believes that the public has a right to know," the group said in a statement.

Earthlife Africa says it has followed all the relevant administrative channels to access the board minutes, but Eskom has refused to allow access. The group says legal action is now its only remaining choice.

Eskom has publicly stated that the PBMR company intends to build a 110 megawatt demonstration reactor at Koeberg near Cape Town and an associated fuel plant at Pelindaba near Pretoria, where fuel for the existing Koeberg reactor was previously manufactured.

The commercial PBMR reactors Eskom and its partners want to build would be sized to produce about 165 megawatts each and have been configured into layouts of two, four or eight co-located plants.

Earthlife Africa says the group has attempted to participate in the Environmental Impact Assessment process for the pebble bed demonstration reactor, but "found that insufficient information was put forward by Eskom to enable any meaningful participation."

Gcabashe

Thulani Gcabashe is Eskom Holdings chief executive. (Photo courtesy Eskom)
The group says it believes that the public has a right to know all the risks and impacts in full as this project involves public enterprises and electricity consumers will be asked to pay for it.

"It is strange that although Eskom claims it is such fantastic technology, a leading international energy player, Exelon pulled out of the project and Eskom has been unable to find another international investor," said Olivia Andrews, campaigner in Cape Town. "If it is so great, then how come no-one wants to be part of the action," she asked.

"It is difficult to see how Eskom projections are likely to be met by a supply technology that is yet to get off the drawing board, does not have necessary government legal approvals and is still desperately seeking investors," Andrews said.

Earthlife Africa won its last court case against the pebble bed reactor, a legal action challenging the Environmental Impact Assessment granted by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

The court ruled that the agency's Record of Decision on the PBMR assessment was fatally flawed and set aside the Environmental Impact Assessment, saying that Earthlife Africa had not been given an adequate opportunity to put its views across.

“Earthlife Africa is hoping that some of the information in the Eskom board minutes will shed some light on the reasons that Eskom opted for expensive untested nuclear technology when investing in energy efficiency and conservation measures would, in our view, have been a far more effective solution,” said Andrews.

In February, the PBMR nuclear company said that South Africa has a "three-to-four-year advantage" over its closest competitor, China, in "the race to develop a commercially viable fourth generation nuclear power plant with pebble bed technology."

Eskom's Koeberg Power Station started operating in 1984 and is the only commercial nuclear power station in Africa. It is situated at Duynefontein, 27 kilometers north of Cape Town on the Atlantic coast, the location chosen for the pebble bed demonstration reactor.

Eskom claims that Koeberg has operated safely for more than 17 years and will operate for another 20 to 30 years.

But Earthlife Africa points out that the area lies within a seismic fault zone that has seen a number of serious earthquakes over the past century, the most recent being the magnitude of 6.3 Ceres quake of 1969.

Eskom generates 88 percent of its electricity by burning coal, six percent with nuclear power, one percent by hydro power, one percent by pumped storage, and imports four percent, according to the company's 2004 annual report. The company also has several operational wind and solar power generating projects.

Eskom supplies 95 percent of the country’s electricity requirements, which equals more than half of the electricity generated on the African continent.

For technical information about the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, go to: http://www.eskom.co.za/nuclear_energy/pebble_bed/pebble_bed.asp



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