Power to the People
After a week of sporadic electricity supply, Cape Town is back in running order. For how long remains to be seen.
For those of you who may not know, this is the breakdown of what happened: Cape Town is supplied by South Africa’s only nuclear reactor at Koeberg, which has two units. At the end of last year, Unit 1 was down for refueling, leaving only Unit 2 in operation. As could be expected, there were a number of power failures during the refueling process, as any trip on the grid would result in Unit 2 going down, with no second unit to back it up. These were only somewhat inconvenient (and it was a lot of fun to watch Eskom blaming one of the failures on fires under the transmission wires, with the Fire Department going ‘There weren’t any fires in the area at the time’). Eventually, just in time for christmas, Unit 1 was brought back on line and everything seemed peachy.
Until Unit 1 suddenly failed unexpectedly. Investigation found holes punched through the rotor and stator, by an 8-inch bolt that was rattling around inside the reactor. A bolt that was meant to be holding down a hatch on the outside of the reactor. Now, Eskom is naturally investigating everything from human error to sabotage, but word from people inside the plant is painting a different picture. One which looks much more plausible, at least to those familiar with local work ethic. The suspicion of the plant engineers is that during the refueling, that hatch had to be removed. There are four bolts holding down the hatch. When it was replaced and the worker discovered there were only three bolts left, what did he do? Open it again to check that it hadn’t fallen in? Of course not. He went to storage, got another bolt, and screwed it in. Which is why on final checks before bringing the reactor online, no one noticed that there was a bolt missing. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the South African work ethic in action. The worry is not that you may have damaged something, only that you may get caught. Not surprisingly, no one has yet admitted to being the twit who left the bolt inside the nuclear frigging reactor.
Anyway, the result of all this was that Unit 1 went down again for repairs. And while it was down, Unit 2 suffered a massive trip on Saturday night, leaving the entire Western province without power for most of Sunday. Eskom’s excuse? Mist and pollution caused it, in the grand old tradition of marsh gas, weather balloons and the light of Venus. I’m sorry to say, but if your power lines cannot handle mist, how the hell do they manage to operate in the middle of a winter deluge in Cape Town?
So while Unit 2 was brought back on line (a process that lasted until Friday) we were bringing power down from the north of the country. But because the transmission lines could only handle a fraction of the load, Eskom employed a process of rotating power cuts known as ‘Load Shedding’. In the words of Synkronos, what this means is that Eskom proceeds to shed a load on its consumers. Despite the publishing of a timetable for power cuts, and the assurance that cuts in each area would last no more than 2 hours at a time, they proceeded to employ complete randomness. The power would go off for 18 hours at a time in some areas, and then come on for 3 hours at 2am. The list would say that power was due to come back on in an area at noon, instead it would go off at noon. Some residential areas that were near industrial areas were treated in the same way, having power during the day when everyone was away at work, and then no power all night. Traffic lights would be down, with no traffic officers there to keep the cars moving. In fact, the only traffic officer i saw directing traffic during the entire week was doing so at a working intersection.
What this resulted in was near-apocalyptic conditions in Cape Town. You really don’t think about all the consequences of a sustained power outage. Petrol stations close because the pumps don’t work. Shops close. Traffic becomes hellish because no one seems to understand the concept of a four way stop. Sewerage pumps stop working, food spoils, geysers cool, ATMs don’t work. What you’re left with is a city full of people who have no idea what to do with themselves. They can’t work. They can’t play. They can’t eat a cooked meal, or take a bath, or draw money or fill their cars. It’s just like a zombie invasion, only we’re the zombies. And we don’t want brains. We want power. Patience dwindles, tempers flare, and suddenly what you have is a city of people ready to snap. Keep it up for another week, and who knows what could happen.
Of course, we may very well find out soon enough. Unit 1 is still not back on line, as Eskom desperately tries to find second-hand parts overseas. If that doesn’t work, it will take at least a year to manufacture new ones. In the meantime, Unit 2 is scheduled for refueling next month. The process takes a month at least. Eskom thinks they may be able to postpone the refueling by a month or two, but there’s no guarantee that Unit 1 will be up by then. So stock up on gas stoves, torches, batteries, baked beans and toilet paper, my friends. It’s Y2K all over again, only this time it’s actually going to happen.
By the way, if you want to know how long the power would last if we really were invaded by zombies, check out this Straight Dope Staff Report.