Andreas Späth

Earthquakes and SA’s new nukes

2011-08-10 08:30

Andreas Späth

While we might not all like the idea of atomic energy, I think everyone can agree that if any new nuclear power stations (NPSs) are to built, we should do our best to ensure that they are save from earthquakes. We should be using the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art scientific methods to evaluate the seismic risk associated with potential locations. Surely that’s a no-brainer. Right?

Well, not to everyone, it seems.

I’ve previously written about Eskom’s Nuclear-1 draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which aims to evaluate the suitability of three sites – Thyspunt near St Francis Bay, Bantamsklip near Hermanus and Duynefontein (Koeberg) – for South Africa’s next NPS. As part of the public participation process I chose to comment specifically on the seismic risk assessment part of the EIR. While I’m not an expert in the field, I do have a background in geology and felt competent enough to critically evaluate that section of the report.

I guess I was naïve in hoping that some of my comments would be taken up and acted upon by those compiling the EIR. Instead of offering remedies, however, they simply re-stated the positions taken in the original document. My original concerns therefore still stand and warrant being re-stated.

One central criticism of the seismic risk assessment in the EIR is that it is based on outdated scientific methodology that is not on par with international standards. The authors of the report readily admit this themselves when they state that “no new Seismological Risk Assessment was completed since 2007” and that “the investigators acknowledge the limitations inherent to the data and methodology employed so far and the Seismic and Geological Hazard Impact Assessment reports are quite clear about the fact that not all the questions regarding the geological environment have been resolved”.

“Financial constraints” and “restraints” are offered as reasons and promises are made for studies to be “redone using a different methodology” and “additional work to reduce remaining uncertainties” at some unspecified time in the future. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a woefully inadequate response.

And I’m not just splitting hairs over this methodology issue. Earlier this year, Cape Town based geological consultant, renowned geotectonicist and former UCT associate professor, Chris Hartnady pointed out that the most recent scientific techniques for evaluating earthquake risks result in substantially different outcomes to those used in the EIR and that “a ‘great’ earthquake, of [magnitude] 8 and above, is quite conceivable on the Milnerton fault” close to Koeberg. According to Eskom, Koeberg was designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 7 on the Richter Scale.

Regardless of all this, the authors of the EIR insist that, based on “informed preliminary conclusions”, the three locations in question are suitable for the construction of new NPSs. A conclusion that could only be drawn under the most sloppy conception of what it means to make a scientific assessment.

On a fundamental level, the EIR authors would have us believe that “design and appropriate engineering mitigation” are guaranteed to result in a NPS resilient enough to stand up to any earthquake or tsunami the planet might care to throw at it. Tragically and apparently without a hint of irony, they make reference to the “successful operation of nuclear power reactors in regions with generally higher levels of seismicity and thus higher seismic hazard levels, such as California and Japan”. If anything, the events at Fukushima prove that international regulatory benchmarks, even those in countries with extensive experience with earthquakes and tsunamis, are ultimately inadequate to guarantee failsafe reactor design.

In the end the authors of the EIR can’t help but stumble over the glaring internal inconsistencies in their own arguments. They acknowledge that “the Seismic and Geological Hazard Impact Assessment reports are quite clear about the fact that not all the questions have been resolved and that there is a need for additional work before the green light can be given for the development of a NPS at any of these site” [my emphasis]. Yet, in complete contradiction, the EIR itself states that “based on current knowledge, the three localities under review are considered suitable locations for standard export NPS’s”.

Kafka lives! The entire affair would be comical if it wasn’t so deeply worrying.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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