Andrew Kenny: Life or death as Kusile Power Station faces critical decision on pollution

Andrew Kenny writes, “Here is my next offering – it is on a subject dear to my heart but maybe not dear to the hearts of your readers: the question of how technological decisions affect the lives and happiness of ordinary people. In this case the question is whether to run three units at Kusile with reduced emission measures or to shut them down. Either way will kill people.” The Kusile Power Station in Mpumalanga, South Africa, has suffered a structural accident in one of its stacks (chimneys). The station, which is one of Eskom’s latest coal stations, is situated in an area known for its air pollution. A decision needs to be made on whether to shut down three of Kusile’s six units for at least two years to undertake a proper repair, or allow them to operate with a temporary repair that will take a year, but will result in increased air pollution in the area. Kenny highlights the debate over the best course of action, with both options having serious potential consequences.

A life and death decision at Kusile Power Station

By Andrew Kenny*

A life and death decision needs to be taken about the operation of Kusile Power Station, following an accident to one of its stacks (chimneys). Should three units at Kusile be allowed to operate with a temporary repair, which will take a year? In this case, it will increase air pollution in the area, which will kill people. Or should the units be shut down until a proper repair is done, which will take at least two years? In this case the lack of electricity might cause an increase in a far worse form of air pollution, which will kill more people. A morbid calculation should be done. But it won’t be done.

Kusile is a gigantic new coal station situated near Witbank in Mpumalanga, in an area with some of the worst air pollution in South Africa. The pollution comes from a large number of coal power stations and mills. Kusile and Medupi, in Limpopo, are Eskom’s latest coal stations. The building of both has been plagued by poor design, bad workmanship, long delays, gross over-spending and massive corruption. Both have suffered from disgraceful, expensive accidents caused by sheer incompetence. The latest such accident happened in October last year at a stack at Kusile, which will mean that three of Kusile’s six units will be out of operation for at least two years unless a temporary repair is done. The temporary repair will increase air pollution.

Like most big Eskom coal stations, Kusile has six generating units and two stacks. Each stack takes the exhausts from three units. At Kusile the stacks are 220 meters high. (Some of Eskom’s stacks are 300 metres high, as high as the Eiffel Tower.) Kusile is the first Eskom station to have flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD), which removes sulphur dioxide (SO2) from the exhausts. Each unit has its own scrubber to do this. FGD has large capital and operating costs, and adds considerably to the total costs of coal-fired electricity. The SO2 is absorbed by limestone (calcium carbonate) in the scrubbers. Huge amounts of limestone are needed, and have to be continually supplied and removed.

Read more: SA and Zimbabwe: A shared destiny to power-supply Armageddon

Coal, which drove the Industrial Revolution two hundred years ago, and so enormously increased the health and prosperity of the human race, is the dirtiest way of generating electricity. Coal power stations emit smoke (little solid particles, which we are required to call “particulates”), sulphur oxide gases (SOx) and nitrogen oxide gases (NOx) among others. All of these are dangerous; all are harmful, causing respiratory and heart diseases. The SOx come from sulphur in the coal. South Africa coal is low is sulphur – about 1% in concentration, compared with 3% for European coals – and up to now no attempt has been made to remove it from the exhaust fumes; the exhaust gases were simply blown up into the air through very high stacks, dispersing the pollution widely, reducing its concentration to any human receiving it. NOx is formed when anything is burnt in air at high temperatures. Most of the smoke is removed from Eskom power stations, using either electrostatic precipitators (ESPs) or bag filters. Coal stations also release large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is completely harmless. Up to about 150 ppm (parts per million), CO2 in the air traps heat and warms the planet; above that it has never been seen to have any heating effect; and it has always been above 150 ppm in the life of the planet.

At Kusile, because of poor design and wilfully incompetent operation, the duct from the FGD scrubber on Unit 1 broke off where it joined the main stack. This put Units 2 and 3 out of operation too, because all three units use the same stack. It will take at least two years to do proper repairs. In the meantime, permission has been granted by the environmental minister, Barbara Creecy, to build a temporary stack, probably about 100 m high, which will by-pass the scrubbers, and allow the three units to operate but emit SO2 unchecked. The temporary stack will take about one year to build. She has not yet given permission to operate with the temporary stack. Green organisations are urging her not to. They have warned about the dangers of operating with defective air pollution equipment. Characteristically they have not warned of the likely worse dangers of not operating at all.

The greens point out that coal air pollution leads to an increase in diseases, all of which can be mortal. This is true, and nuclear proponents such as myself have been pointing this out for at least forty years. We are glad that at last the message is being heard. But the greens seem to claim a certainty about pollution deaths that does not exist. For example, in a recent article in Business Day (16 March 2023), Melissa Fourie of the Centre for Environmental Rights, quoting a 2016 study by GroundWork, says that air pollution from South African coal stations kills 2,239 people a year: 157 by lung disease, 1,110 heart disease, 73 obstructive pulmonary disease, 719 strokes and 180 lower respiratory disease. These seemingly precise figures are at best careful estimates, at worst wild guesses. Epidemiological studies of the health effects of air pollution are notoriously difficult to conduct, and the best such studies show huge margins of uncertainty. Not only is it difficult to predict what populations will be exposed to what concentrations of the dangerous gases from coal stations but it is also difficult to predict how individuals will react to any given dose of any gas. You can’t blame the greens for this but you can blame them for failing to point this out and, worse, not pointing out the greater dangers of not running power stations. And you can blame them for the silly alternatives they propose.

By far the most dangerous air pollution in South Africa – by far – is indoor air pollution from the burning of coal, wood, candles and paraffin in the dwellings of poor people, many of which do not have chimneys. If you drive past the black townships and squatter camps on a cold still morning or evening, and see a sinister brown-grey haze hanging over them, you should know that under that haze people, especially young children, are suffering lung disease, heart disease and permanent brain damage on a horrible scale. They also suffer terrible fires that rip through shacks, killing people, maiming and disfiguring babies and toddlers. The fires are mainly caused by cheap, deadly paraffin stoves falling over and bursting into flames. These people would not die and suffer like this if they had electricity in their houses.

Read more: Eskom to concession coal-fired power stations: Risky move or power play? – Katzenellenbogen

Indoor air pollution from burning coal, wood and paraffin not only exposes the occupants to far higher concentrations of smoke and SO2 than they would ever get from outdoor air pollution, but also exposes them to a killer gas, carbon monoxide (CO). When carbon burns completely in air, as it does in the furnace of a coal station, it turns to CO2, which is harmless. But if it does not burn completely, as if often the case indoors, it turns to CO, which is deadly. CO in the lungs sucks oxygen out of the blood. It causes a painless death if you breathe in enough (which isn’t much), and is a favourite form of suicide. But if a baby, with a developing brain, does not breathe in enough to kill, it can cause permanent brain damage. CO is believed to contribute to bad school performance of poor black children for this very reason.

In other words, a dwelling hundreds of kilometres from the nearest coal station and burning coal, wood and paraffin indoors would get far more dangerous air pollution than the same dwelling right next to a coal station and getting its energy from the electricity of that station. The lack of electricity kills. Each year that those three units at Kusile do not run will cause about over 5,000 GWh of electricity to be lost (assuming 70% load factor). Load-shedding will also kill by reducing the economy and increasing poverty, and by shutting electricity to hospitals.

What should be done in the case of Kusile is a proper calculation of the lives that would be lost by running those three units without FGD and the lives that would be lost by not running them. The calculation would be immensely difficult, and would require an evaluation of the costs of deaths. The death of a 90-year-old man has a different value from that of a 1-year old girl; we should use “Years of Life Loss” (YOLLs) rather than deaths. Good figures will be hard to come by. A study by the Department of International Health at Harvard estimated that in the year 2,000, in sub-Saharan Africa, 350,000 children died from lower respiratory disease caused by burning biomass (wood and vegetable waste) indoors. It is difficult to get figures for South Africa alone but it should be attempted. It would also be very difficult to determine what the effect of losing electricity at Kusile would be in increasing indoor air pollution, although it is almost certain that it would have some effect.

Unfortunately, I predict that no attempt will be made to assess the deaths and suffering that might be caused by not running the Kusile units. No one will bother. The greens are only interested in the harm caused by modern technology; they have no interest in the harm it prevents. It is rather like the decision on the Covid lockdown. At the time I heard estimates of how many people Covid-19 disease would kill. I heard no estimates of how many people a lockdown would kill. Their deaths didn’t seem to matter to the important people in power making the decision. As it happened, the lockdown killed far more people – by increasing economic decline, poverty, hunger, other diseases, and loneliness. It destroyed the education of a large number of poor children.

The greens make the absurd suggestion that we should solve the problem at Kusile by turning to solar power. Solar and wind power for grid electricity has been an expensive disaster wherever it has been tried, sending final electricity prices soaring and increasing electricity failures. This is because they are both intermittent and unreliable, and so the electricity they produce is useless for the grid without very costly measures to correct it such as back-up generation, spinning reserve, extra transmission lines, storage and so on. Solar can be good off-grid. Roof top solar photovoltaic (PV) panels would be good for rich householders but no good for poor ones. A poor family could not cook its supper in winter from solar panels, even if it could afford them. And there are immense environmental problems with solar and wind, both of which require colossal amounts of raw materials, far more than nuclear power, and have a worse waste problem than nuclear power. The manufacture of solar panels requires highly toxic materials, some of which, such as cadmium, remain dangerous forever – not just millions of years but forever.

In the long-term South Africa’s best source of future electricity is nuclear, which is safe, clean, reliable, sustainable and affordable. Right now we’re stuck with a huge fleet of coal stations. We should clean them up as best as we can. But we should realise that their dirty electricity is better than no electricity at all.

Read more: South Africa’s power crisis: Corruption, crime and coal


1. Apparently at Kusile, because of bad design, ash built up in the duct feeding the stack. Why this should have occurred I don’t know, since the bag filters should have removed all the ash (unburnt solids). The operators advised some senior manager (not yet named) that the stack would be damaged if they continued operating at full power. He refused to reduce power. The stack was damaged.

2. I didn’t want to go into a whole thing on climate change. It is complete nonsense to suggest that rising CO2 will cause dangerous climate change. It won’t cause any climate change. CO2 only absorbs IR in one significant band, 15 micron, and that band is already saturated at peak. You can see a missing chunk at that wavelength in satellite pics of the outgoing Earth emission spectrum. Above 150 ppm, CO2 has never been seen to have any effect on global temperatures or the global climate. In the past 550 million years CO2 has never been below 150 ppm. Before that it was almost certainly much higher.

3. People kill themselves in their cars by running a hose from the car exhaust into the cab, and running the engine with themselves inside. The exhaust gases include CO, which makes you sleepy and then kills you. It is a painless death, and your corpse apparently has a peaceful pinkish glow. The old-fashioned coal gas also had CO, and was also used for suicide.

4. The 350,000 child deaths from biomass burning in dwellings comes from “Indoor Air Pollution and Africa Death Rates” by Prof MAJID EZZATI of Harvard, 15 Sep 2008. He is an associate professor of international health at Harvard.

5. Waste from nuclear and solar. All energy technologies leave dangerous wastes that last forever. All stable elements, by definition, last forever. Only radioactive ones do not last forever. Radioactive nuclear waste is tiny in mass, even tinier in volume, chemically stable and easy to store so that it presents no danger to man or nature. Nuclear needs little resources and produces little waste. Solar and wind need massive resources and leave huge amounts of waste. Wind turbines, for example, require ten times as much concrete and steel as nuclear power per kWh. The toxic chemicals in solar panels include cadmium telluride, copper indium selenide, cadmium gallium (di)selenide, copper indium gallium (di)selenide, hexafluoroethane, lead, and polyvinyl fluoride. Additionally, silicon tetrachloride, a byproduct of producing crystalline silicon, is highly toxic.

6. Solar, wind and batteries will do nothing to reduce load-shedding. I can give you some simple calcs to prove this if you wish.

7. I worked at Hendrina Power Station near Middleburg in 1987. It is right in the middle of the air polluted by the coal stations. And it was polluted all right. Sometimes, in the middle of a sunny, cloudless day, there was darkness as noon from the smokestacks. The stacks have been cleaned up since but there are limits to how much you can clean them. 

*Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal. 

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