Dress rehearsal for a Koeberg meltdown

Andreas Späth

Just before 8am on Tuesday, September 4 unusually high levels of radioactivity were measured in the primary cooling circuit of one of the reactors at the Koeberg nuclear power plant outside Cape Town. During the course of the morning, radioactive steam was released into the air and blown towards city’s suburbs by a strong North-Wester...

... all of which happened on paper, theoretically, during an emergency exercise and NOT in the real world.

Every two years, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) organises these exercises in order to comply with its legal mandate to ensure that a viable plan to deal with a potential nuclear accident at Koeberg is in place. As a member of the anti-nuclear Koeberg Alert Alliance (KAA), I was invited as a "VIP observer" and spent the day visiting a number of key sites involved in the exercise.

Our first stop was the City of Cape Town's Disaster Operations Centre (DOC) in Bellville where functionaries representing everyone from the SANDF to the SPCA had gathered to spearhead the response to the hypothetical crisis by activating the Integrated Koeberg Nuclear Emergency Plan, a document that has long been shrouded in official secrecy, but was recently brought into the public domain by persistent advocacy from KAA. Read it here.


Back at Koeberg we inspected the Technical Support Centre (TSC) and the Emergency Control Centre (ECC), which are housed in a bunker-like basement just a few hundred metres from the plant’s reactor containment building. In the TSC, Eskom experts were figuring out how to bring the plant under control, while a group of their colleagues in the adjoining ECC were relaying recommendations to the DOC on how to deal with the impact of the hypothetical crisis on the surrounding environment and its human inhabitants.

While Eskom provides technical support and advice, local authorities are responsible for taking actions in response to the emergency. Thus road blocks were set up, hypothetical food bans imposed, hypothetical potassium iodate tablets distributed and a computer model was used to hypothetically evacuate some 3 000 residents from the five kilometre Precautionary Action Zone around Koeberg. At a Mass Care Centre set up at the Parow North Sport and Recreation Centre, one bus load of real-life volunteer "evacuees" were processed for hypothetical radioactive contamination.

The exercise ended with a mock press conference at the Joint Media Centre located at Eskom's Bellville offices, where the crisis was declared over as the situation at Koeberg had been brought under control. Based on the hypothetical amount of radioactive material released, the event was rated a Level 4 accident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). While the windblown radioactive cloud had moved rapidly, the maximum hypothetical radiation measurement taken in the plume was merely 1.6 mSv per hour, comparable to natural background levels and of insignificant risk to the public.

A joke?

At the debriefing session on the following day everyone was pretty happy. Baring a few minor glitches, everything had proceeded according to plan.

I thought it was a joke.

I have no doubt that the officials involved are 100% committed to their jobs and that they might be hypothetically capable of dealing with the equivalent of a mildly annoying radioactive fart from Koeberg. But what about a serious Level 7 accident on par with Chernobyl or Fukushima?

What exactly is the point of not practicing for a worst-case scenario? After all, NNR CEO Advocate Boyce Mkhize had suggested at the start that the exercise should show that we are able to cope with an accident on the scale of Fukushima. Did it?

Blinkered vision

No, it didn't. In both the Ukraine and Japan, well over 100 000 people were evacuated from 30km exclusion zones. Nothing of the sort was even contemplated here.

The exercise did not prove that the existing emergency plan is able to sufficiently protect people or the environment in the case of a major, Fukushima-scale nuclear accident and it stands to reason that the NNR has failed to fulfil its legal obligation to ensure exactly that. In the end, this felt more like a feel-good exercise than an emergency exercise.

Self-congratulatory back-slapping aside, the operation reflects the blinkered vision of an industry that refuses to honestly confront reality - the reality that a worst-case nuclear accident scenario is nigh-on impossible to plan for or mitigate - for the simple reason that if it did, it would have to put itself out of business.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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