Koeberg: Inside the reactor the apartheid government built ... almost

2015-09-14 10:50

A group of ANC MPs was clustered around the nuclear control rod, which had been removed and was lying on its side. Their plates, filled with boereworsies and sosaties and stuff, were perched on the rod as they made polite conversation while waiting for proceedings to get under way.

This was parliamentary oversight at its very best, finger food on the frontlines. A good story to tell and all that.

Fine, maybe the rod, used to control the nuclear reaction, was only a replica at the visitor’s centre of the Koeberg nuclear power station, but the image was the kind of thing that tends to stays with you.

For me, the visit by Parliament’s portfolio committees of energy and public enterprises was one of those rare occasions in today’s journalism when you actually get to do something cool.

I mean, how many people can say they’ve been inside a nuclear power station? Most Capetonians only ever see Koeberg when they are on their way to weekends away on the West Coast.

And you get why. Nuclear power stations are creepy, after all. They have emergency sirens around them.

Anyway, I could already see myself at the bar, regaling the group with behind-the-scenes-type stuff from an article titled “Koeberg: Inside the reactor the apartheid government built”, while suddenly interested Capetonian girls looked on admiringly.

Unfortunately, this is not that story.

Nuclear power stations are overrated, to be honest. In fact, “crashing bore” would be closer to the truth.

What is even more disappointing is that the build-up to a nuclear power station creates expectations of James Bond proportions.

Your personal details are meticulously recorded and checked as you pass through multiple security points. You get issued with personal safety gear.

You are told to leave behind all electronic equipment because it could become radioactive (!) You have to pass a breathalyser test while you mentally cross nuclear engineering off your list of careers you should have done.

Your personal security card is scanned along with that of a security guy who looks like he was imported from the previous regime. He also pins in an additional code. There’s a guy with an assault rifle.

When you finally clear security the first thing you see is a board measuring radiation levels. This is going to be epic, you think.

Not so.

A nuclear power station, as it turns out, is just like any other heavy industry type place you can go to. There are lots of safety signs; that heavy, continuous humming sound of big machinery; and, deep in the innards of the plant, some dude always seems to be banging on a metal pipe.

Things are impressively big, in the way that industrial things always are. Ooh, look at this really big spare turbine, which is the biggest in Africa/the southern hemisphere. Look at this tap, which releases the steam that turns the generator. It’s the size of a Mini Cooper.

But there’s not much more to it. The highlight of the trip was finding one of those green emergency escape signs that had a politically correct picture of both a man and a woman stick figure running for the exit. I assume this is so women will also know which way to go in the event of a nuclear emergency and remember thinking to myself that this was impressive stuff from Eskom.

Of course, the exciting bit of a nuclear plant – the reactor – was off limits. That’s where the rods (like the one from lunch) are used to control the nuclear reaction that heats water and makes steam. On our trip, we would only see the bits of the operation where the steam drives a turbine that makes electricity and the place where sea water gets sucked in to cool off the steam.

I was okay with this because apparently there’s a two-hour process to get access to the reactor, in which you also get a permanent radiation monitoring record. Those of us who have been threatened with this kind of record were happy to give it a miss.

We also had to skip a tour of the emergency control centre, which I am sure would have been impressive, because the MPs had to get back to Parliament’s ongoing scourge of corruption in South Africa and measures to combat this.

You would think that doing oversight of the emergency control centre at a nuclear power station would be at least as important as one of those parliamentary debates that result in great clouds of hot air and silliness, but that just goes to show how little I know about oversight.

At the end of a the trip you have to stand under a sensor that checks if you’ve become radioactive. Moment of truth I think as a female computer voice says: “Three, two, one ... Clean.”

Depressingly, I hadn’t picked up any traces of radiation so there would be no sick leave. All in all, I am thrilled to report the security and management of Koeberg seems to be taken a bit more seriously than, say, the running of the local home affairs office.

But still, I wouldn’t recommend it for a day out with the family. Although the nature reserve around the reactor is very nice and the animals don’t have extra body parts or anything.

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