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Study finds safety concerns over South African nuclear power plant proposal

A new study has raised safety concerns over the site of a proposed new nuclear power plant in South Africa. The study adds to controversy over transparency, economics and environmental issues.

The site where South Africa's state-owned Eskom proposes to build a controversial nuclear power plant may be at risk of storm surges, sea level rises, tsunamis and submarine landsides, according to a geological report, but the power provider disputes the findings.

South Africa has the continent's only nuclear power plant and is considering expanding nuclear power alongside coal and renewable energy to meet growing demand.

Much of the debate over expanding nuclear power has centered around economics, the trade-off with renewable energy and concerns over transparency and potential corruption.

Site suitability questions

A study published by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the Africa Earth Observatory Network now adds additional concern over the suitability of Eskom's proposed nuclear reactor site at Thyspunt, near Port Elizabeth, on the Indian Ocean coastline.

The study says a large earthquake along an existing dormant fault line "is likely to generate a large submarine slump, and possible significant local tsunami that would affect the coastal region." It also warns of geological structures around the area of the proposed site make it subject to possible sea level rises and storm surges.

The aquifer system at Thyspunt and potential seawater penetration into buried canyons and valleys beneath sand dunes may not prevent flooding from tidal swamps and a tsunami, it said. "It could literally become a Fukushima prone to flooding from below," the report said, referring to the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan.

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In a statement issue on Friday, Eskom said they have been transparent, conducted some 20 peer-reviewed studies and taken into consideration various rare extreme events. The utility said it has used the same "comprehensive and rigorous" seismic hazard analysis as required in the United States for the construction of new nuclear power plants. The results of the studies will be used to provide input into the design of the plant, Eskom said.

Change of energy plans

Eskom is pushing for the South African government to bring a new nuclear power plant online by 2025 as part of a larger roll out of several nuclear plants to meet energy demand.

However, a draft blueprint of the government's integrated energy plans signals the country may slow its build up to just 1,359 megawatts (MW) by 2037, compared with a previous target of adding 9,600 MW of new nuclear power by 2030.

Under the draft plan, nuclear energy would expand by 20,385 MW between 2037 and 2050. In the short-term, resources would be devoted to initial capacity investments in gas, solar, wind and hydro power.

Opponents of nuclear power have also raised concerns about transparency and corruption under President Jacob Zuma. South Africa's nuclear plans could cost up to $80 billion (75.5 billion euros) and Eskom is expected to procure, own and operate the new nuclear plants.

The head of Eskom and a board member resigned this month after being implicated in a report by the Public Protector over questionable coal deals between the utility and the wealthy Gupta family, who are close to Zuma.

The constitutionally-mandated, anti-graft watchdog this month called for an investigation into Zuma for alleged, widespread graft and influence peddling as part of the Gupta probe. 

cw/jm (AFP, Reuters)

 

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