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South Africa Looks to
Next-Generation Nuclear Power

But last week, opponents filed papers against a
new pebble-bed reactor near Cape Town

NICOLE ITANO / The Christian Science Monitor 23sep03

[Earthlife press release and legal summary below]

DUYNEFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA - On a sandy shore whipped by fierce winds and punishing waves, sits Africa's only nuclear power plant. The two reactors here at Koeberg, which came online in the last days of apartheid, pump out 6.5 percent of South Africa's electricity and light most of Cape Town, 12 miles down the coast.

This could become ground zero of a revolution in the way Africa - and the world - are powered.

South Africa's state energy provider, Eskom, is leading a $1 billion project to develop a new technology that it says will give nuclear power new life, both here and abroad. Eskom plans to build the world's first commercial pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR), which replaces traditional uranium rods with fist-sized balls containing tiny particles of uranium surrounded by graphite and silicon carbide. The design of such a reactor, proponents say, would make meltdown impossible.

But while environmentalists see the plant as a relic of a previous generation's flirtation with a dangerous source of energy, developers say that in an era of global warming and spiking energy needs, next-generation nuclear power is the world's best hope.

"Nuclear power is clean from an emissions point of view," says Carin de Villiers, a spokeswoman for Eskom. "It's not a case of having no impact on the environment. That's not possible. I think it's a case of doing what you can to minimize that impact."

For South Africa, the appeal of nuclear power is twofold. First, the country itself is experiencing a sharp increase in demand, fueled by industrial growth and a program to bring electricity to formerly underserved communities. In 1993, only about 30 percent of South Africans had access to power; today that figure is above 60 percent and growing.

Sustainable energy like wind and hydroelectricity can meet some of that need, but Eskom says such methods are limited. And coal, which provides 90 percent of South Africa's electricity needs, is highly polluting.

But South Africa's vision for PBMR extends far beyond its own borders. Ultimately, it plans to export the technology and hopes to build 10 to 20 such plants around the world each year, creating an industry that would employ 57,000 people and bring important investment here.

"Ten years ago, when Eskom started investigating this technology, nuclear [power] was not the flavor of the month," says Tom Ferreira, director of communications for Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, a company created by Eskom and international investors to develop the technology. "But there are 30 new nuclear reactors being built at the moment [worldwide] and there is certainly a trend toward nuclear that did not exist 10, 15 years ago."

Germany and China have both produced small experimental pebble-bed reactors, but South Africa's would be the first and largest commercial example of the technology. In pebble-bed reactors, each tiny grain of uranium essentially has its own protective casing able to withstand extreme heat. Proponents say this should silence meltdown concerns. They also say that pebble-bed reactors produce much less waste than traditional ones.

South Africa is gambling that countries that are already investing in new nuclear facilities, particularly in Asia, will start building pebble-bed reactors once the technology is proven - in seven to 10 years, if all goes according to plan.

Whatever the potential benefits, however, critics say the project has been a big financial gamble for a country struggling to provide basic services to its people. (Developers say the project will break even only after 30 plants are built.)

In June, an environmental- impact assessment gave Eskom the go-ahead, but last week environmental groups filed papers to challenge that decision in court. The Cape Town city government has also put its weight behind the opposition, as have civic groups.

"Any type of nuclear energy is obviously, for a whole range of reasons, not good," says Liz McDaid, a spokeswoman for the South African environmental group Earthlife. "But this particular one is very, very expensive and untested, and we think that it has all the problems of old nuclear technology, and that any claims to be better and brighter are only on paper."

Opponents say they don't want such a new technology tested so close to a major urban population. They say that even if it's safer - which they contest - there's still the problem of nuclear waste, which is currently stored on site or buried in a desolate area in the country's northwest. Ms. McDaid and others say that South Africa should invest in developing renewable energy sources like tidal, wind, and hydroelectricity.

source: http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0923/p07s01-woaf.html 22sep03


Today saw the start of the next round of the legal battle
to stop the PBMR from going ahead.

Press Release Monday, 15 September 2003

Earthlife Africa - Cape Town (Earthlife) today launched a High Court application in Cape Town, seeking to review and set aside the environmental impact assessment (EIA) authorization granted to Eskom to build a demonstration module Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) at Koeberg, Cape Town.

Earthlife is challenging the EIA authorisation as it believes that the Director General (DG) of the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), Dr Chippy Olver, made his decision in a procedurally unfair manner.

Earthlife Africa has repeatedly tried to get to the Department to listen to them over the last year, asserting that their constitutional right to be heard has been violated. Unfortunately the department refused to listen and went ahead and granted the PBMR approval on the 25th June this year.

Earthlife Africa's ability to participate in the EIA was inhibited by the fact that it was refused access to information on the economic and technical feasibility of the project, and was denied access to a feasibility review conducted by a panel of international experts. It was also refused access to critical information dealing with the safety of this untested nuclear technology.

"Part of our problem is the substantial, critical pieces of information which we did not have access to during the EIA process" stated Liz McDaid, spokesperson for Earthlife Africa (Cape Town).

"We were not allowed access to important documents for example, to know how much it would cost to construct one demonstration plant, or to comment on them. As it has recently come to light that one demonstration plant would cost over R10 billion, and we already know that Eskom's plan is that the South African public are to pay for this through electricity tariffs, this was a critical omission. From Earthlife Africa's perspective, these are issues that should have been addressed in the EIA "

"It seems quite a coincidence that the construction costs of one demonstration plant should only come to light after the closing date for commenting to the authorities is past." Said Liz McDaid.

According to Earthlife Africa's lawyer, Adrian Pole of the Legal Resources Centre, "The grounds for challenging the decision include that Earthlife Africa's right to procedurally fair administrative decision-making was violated by the DG, and that the authorization falls to be set aside as a consequence, that we believe that the authorization is flawed because the DG abdicated his responsibility to ensure that the proposed demonstration module PBMR is safe, and that the DG failed to comply with mandatory and material provisions of the empowering legislation, that he took irrelevant considerations into account, that he failed to take relevant considerations into account, and that the decision was not rationally connected to the purpose of the empowering EIA legislation"

Although the court papers were lodged today, there is still a long road ahead. The Department will have an opportunity to study Earthlife Africa's arguments and respond. Earthlife Africa will then be able to reply to these responses and only after this procedure has been gone through, will a court date be set.

"It is a long and tiring road but the rewards are enormous. If we can win this court battle, then we can hopefully play a small part in ensuring that South Africa directs its considerable human and capital resources into Environmentally sound, affordable energy provision in a way that does justice to our commitment to Sustainable Development," said Liz McDaid.

Contacts:
Liz McDaid - 082 731 5643
Adrian Pole - 082 340 8534

source: http://www.earthlife-ct.org.za/ct/article.php?story=20030915221356971 22sep03


PBMR EIA Record of Decision Legal Case Summary

Earthlife Africa - Cape Town (Earthlife Africa CT) today launched a High Court application seeking to review and set aside the environmental impact assessment (EIA) authorization granted to Eskom to build a demonstration module Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) at Koeberg, Cape Town.

Earthlife Africa (CT) is challenging the EIA authorisation as it believes that the Director General (DG) of the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), Dr Chippy Olver, made his decision in a procedurally unfair manner, as well as on other grounds.

When the final version of the EIR was submitted to DEAT for consideration of Eskomís application for authorization, it contained a substantial amount of new information that Earthlife Africa (CT) had not had sight of when commenting on the draft EIR, including critical safety information that Earthlife Africa (CT) had requested sight of but had been refused.

The Legal Resources Centre (LRC), acting for Earthlife Africa (CT), had during the EIA repeatedly called upon the DG to afford Earthlife Africa (CT) a reasonable opportunity to make representations to it as the decision-maker. The LRC had also called upon the DEAT to afford Earthlife Africa (CT) access to information placed before DEAT by the applicant, and upon which the decision would be based. These requests were repeatedly refused.

In an effort to secure its right to be heard prior to the decision being made, Earthlife Africa (CT) launched a High Court application earlier this year seeking an order that DEAT should afford it a hearing before making its decision on authorization. An urgent application was simultaneously made for an interdict in an attempt to prevent DEAT from making its decision until the hearing issue had been adjudicated, but was struck from the roll on the basis that it was not sufficiently urgent. However, before Earthlife Africa (CT) was able to have the main relief sought heard by the court, DEAT granted its authorization.

Earthlife Africa (CT) believes that their right to procedurally fair administrative decision-making was violated by the DG, and that the authorization falls to be set aside as a consequence.

Earthlife Africa (CT) also believes that the authorization is flawed because the DG abdicated his responsibility to ensure that the proposed demonstration module PBMR is safe.

Earthlife Africa (CT) is also challenging the decision on other grounds. These grounds include that the DG failed to comply with mandatory and material provisions of the empowering legislation, that he took irrelevant considerations into account, that he failed to take relevant considerations into account, and that the decision was not rationally connected to the purpose of the empowering EIA legislation.

Adrian Pole
Legal Resources Centre

source: http://www.earthlife-ct.org.za/ct/article.php?story=20030915222127753 22sep03

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