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POWER CRISIS

Calls for Eskom to lift veil of silence on R20bn plan to extend Koeberg’s lifespan

Calls for Eskom to lift veil of silence on R20bn plan to extend Koeberg’s lifespan
The Koeberg Nuclear Power Station near Melkbos on 16 February 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Shaun Roy)

While Eskom is positive about plans to extend the lifespan of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station for another 20 years, information on how it will do this has been kept largely under wraps, a move the DA is opposing — potentially legally.

South Africa is again experiencing rolling blackouts because of low capacity; a consequence of a unit at the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station tripping during routine testing. As the country sits in darkness, details of plans to extend the lifespan of the ageing power station have not been shared.  

Located about 30km outside of Cape Town, the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station was constructed in 1976, with the first unit going into commercial operation in 1984 and the second unit in 1985. It is the only nuclear power station in Africa and has the largest turbine generators in the Southern Hemisphere. 

In line with international practice, the plant was granted a 40-year operational licence, which will expire in July 2024.  

As Eskom seeks to extend the power station’s lifespan by 20 years, little information has been made public about the plan to do so. The upgrades to Koeberg are expected to cost R20-billion.  

R20bn life extension of Koeberg power station poses significant risks for South Africa

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has taken steps to ensure the accessibility of this information to the public amid claims from Eskom that Koeberg was in good standing to operate for a further 20 years.  

Keith Featherstone, Eskom’s nuclear support manager, said in a media briefing this week that submissions had been made to the National Nuclear Regulator to extend Koeberg’s operating licence. Featherstone said the utility had found the station needs only minor modifications and to implement some programmes to look after the equipment and ensure operation for the extra 20 years.  

“[Eskom] has not identified any conditions that preclude the operation of Koeberg safety for another 20 years. The process now is for the regulator to review that and decide whether they agree with the conclusions and relay it to the public … and make a decision,” Featherstone said.  

From 22 to 31 March, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Safety Aspects of Long Term Operation review mission conducted an assessment of Koeberg, as requested by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE). The mission looked into the long-term operational safety of the two units at the power station, with the promise of a report three months after the visit. To date, little to no information has been shared about the final outcomes of the report.  

The DA’s shadow minister of minerals resources and energy, Kevin Mileham, said in a statement that the party had issued the DMRE with a Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) request and that the department had acknowledged receipt. The department has to respond within 30 days.  

The last knowledge South Africans had of the IAEA mission’s investigation was from a draft report at the end of the mission in March, in which IAEA senior nuclear safety office Gabor Petofi described the staff at Koeberg as “professional, open and receptive to suggestions for improvement”. The IAEA team suggested:  

  • Comprehensively reviewing and implementing all plant programmes relevant for long-term operation.
  • Completing the revalidation of the qualification of cables in the containment for the long-term operation period.
  • Ensuring full functionality of the containment structure monitoring system. 

“We appreciate the IAEA support in plant-ageing management and preparation for safe LTO [long-term operation],” the then Eskom chief nuclear officer Riedewaan Bakardien said in a press statement.

“The LTO of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant up to 2045 is a vital part of Eskom’s energy planning strategy. The results of this mission will help us finalise our activities for safe LTO in alignment with IAEA safety standards.” 

Mileham told Daily Maverick the current rolling blackouts, said to be a result of Koeberg Unit 2 tripping during routine testing of the control rod system, was the reason the party wanted details of the report into Koeberg’s lifespan.  

“Unit 2 was meant to have … its steam generators installed this year from January to June,” said Mileham. 

“We are concerned about Koeberg because its operating licence expires in July of 2024. In order for them to get a new licence, they have to upgrade and modernise and do a whole lot of life-extension operations on Koeberg, which is 40 years old at this time, and we are concerned that there is not a lot of progress and that they won’t be able to meet the schedule that is required to get that new licence.”  


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Legal action

The shadow minister said the IAEA report was key to Eskom renewing the licence, and the delay in making it public made the party question what the DMRE and Eskom had to hide. He added that should both entities not respond to the Paia application within 30 days, the DA would consider legal action.  

“The reality is this: if we don’t sort out our problems at Koeberg, the switch gets flicked and Koeberg gets shut down — we lose just under 2,000MW of electricity. That’s equivalent to two phases of load shedding,” Mileham said.  

Koeberg is awaiting a steam generator which is expected to arrive in South Africa in December after a delay caused by it being dropped at its manufacturing facility in China, News24 recently reported.  

Eskom officials said in the briefing that this had occurred more than 18 months ago. They also confirmed that the dropped generator — the last of the six that will be replaced at Koeberg — was in good condition. 

The replacement of steam generators at Unit 1 will result in the unit being offline for 185 days; maintenance will also be conducted during this time.  

Koeberg provides South Africa with about 3% of its energy. The recent spate of rolling blackouts saw the breakdown of Unit 2, affecting other power stations and leaving the country with an energy deficit of 16,142MW, Eskom said in a statement.  

Daily Maverick posed detailed questions to Eskom about Koeberg and its extension plans, and was referred to an online media briefing. Group chief executive officer Jan Oberholzer said in the briefing that 42 units had tripped during the week, causing a deficit of almost 24,000MW.  

He said Unit 2 at Koeberg, which supplies 920MW, was shut down on September 3.

“I can assure the public that the Koeberg team, together with the regional equipment manufacturer, Framatome of France, will replace the reactor head in the control rod mechanism, continue to perform tests on the system and analyse the results in detail to ensure that the reason is fully understood,” said Oberholzer. 

Meanwhile, Stage 4 rolling blackouts are expected to continue on Friday, with the possibility of lower stages of rolling blackouts on Saturday morning, Eskom said in a statement.  

Oberholzer added that Eskom was working with the DMRE to ensure additional supply was available as soon as possible. He said, however, that beyond a lack of supply, the lack of skills within Eskom and some of the power utility’s partner contractors was an issue, but it was being dealt with.  

Experts jump ship

Eskom’s chief nuclear officer, Riedewaan Bakardien, left the power utility at the end of July to join a Canadian plant. Bakardien is one of an estimated 250 to 300 skilled persons that have left Koeberg over the past year or so. The experts jumping ship poses questions about how Koeberg will carry out its life extension plan, which is by no means an easy or cheap task, coming in at R20-billion.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Koeberg’s skills exodus puts extension-of-life project further on the back foot

“Is the money that is meant to refurbish Koeberg to bring it up to speed going to generate value for money in the long term?” asked Mileham. 

“Could we spend that on independent power producers? And not necessarily renewables, but quicker and faster distributed generation, or is Koeberg that faster option? We believe there is a space for Koeberg in our energy mix, provided Eskom sorts out the many, many problems that they have, [including] the unreadiness they have for the life-extension programme.” DM/OBP

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Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jim Powell says:

    Small Modular Nuclear Reactors will give a quicker response to generating capacity

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Problem is that nobody trusts government, politicians or functionaries anymore, so absolute transparency ought to have been the starting place for thinking of a bettered-powered future. That the state thinks it can bulldoze the electorate is sticking a proverbial head in the sand, and we SA’s know how to do that par-excellence.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Koeberg is already one of the oldest nuclear plants in the world (oldest is one in Switzerland that switched on in 1969). I am not sure Eskom, with its record of incompetence, should be entrusted to carry the flag as operator of the oldest plant in the world…

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