Could Koeberg go Chernobyl?

2019-07-16 10:54

Early in the morning on 26 April 1986, technicians at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant started a safety test on one of its reactors. But a combination of human error and design flaws caused an explosion that breached the reactor, sending huge amounts of deadly radiation into the surrounding areas.


The reactor

Nuclear power reactors use heavy elements such as uranium to boil water into steam, which spins a turbine to generate electricity. Coal power stations work the same way, except a kilogram of uranium can generate more than a million times as much power as a kilogram of coal. To do this requires a careful balance inside what is essentially a giant, high-pressure and radioactive kettle. Get that balance wrong and things can go bad quickly.

Things went very wrong at Chernobyl, partly due to design flaws in its RBMK reactors. Koeberg, on the other hand, runs Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR). These don’t have the same flaw and are commonly used across the world, including the United States and numerous nuclear submarines. Of course, there could be unknown or unacknowledged flaws, but they are more likely to be spotted because PWR designs are widely used.

Safety is a key consideration with nuclear reactors, which is why they are so expensive. The mistakes made at sites such as Chernobyl are taken into consideration, explained Prof. Hartmut Winkler from UJ’s Department of Physics:

“The Koeberg reactors were built according to a later technology than that of, especially, Chernobyl, and their design includes additional safety mechanisms. For example, at Chernobyl, there was no 1-metre thick concrete encasement (a Koeberg feature), and so the explosion ripped the roof to shreds, and the highly contaminated, strongly radiating material escaped immediately.”

The people

Staff running a test at Chernobyl made terrible mistakes that pushed the reactor to its brink. Human error was involved in the majority of nuclear reactor failures. Are Koeberg’s people up to the task?

It’s actually difficult to drive a nuclear reactor to its edge. The mini-series on Showmax exposes how the ‘yes-sir’ culture of the USSR lead to problems. One benefit of a liberal democracy is that such negligence might be stopped sooner, because people are allowed to speak up. But how would Koeberg react during a problem?

In 2006, a loose bolt on one of the reactors led to blackouts in the area. Sabotage was suspected, but several investigations showed that it was a mistake. What should give comfort is that responses to the problem were relatively quick and thorough: Koeberg staff were even given lie-detector tests.

That being said, the incident was handled in a hushed fashion and Koeberg is still secretive about its procedures, as Prof. Winkler pointed out:

“I would not say that the Koeberg safety record compares too badly with other similar installations. Despite the increased difficulties faced by Eskom, I am not aware of evidence that safety standards have dropped at Koeberg in recent years. That, however, doesn't mean that things should not be improved. Eskom is unfortunately still stuck in the securocratic culture of the 1980s, and their communication is usually marked by terseness and lack of detail.”

The area

Chernobyl was a lesson: hopefully, the people running Koeberg have been listening.

How to get Showmax 

If you’re not a subscriber yet, you can sign up for a 14-day free trial and binge all of Chernobyl without paying a cent. Thereafter, access to a ton of local and international series, movies and documentaries costs just R99 per month.  If you’re a DStv Premium subscriber, Showmax is included in your subscription - just go to the website to sign up. DStv Compact and Compact Plus subscribers can add Showmax to their subscription for just R49pm

Read more on:    showmax  |  south africa  |  koeberg  |  chernobyl
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