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A new look into why the US blocked exports of nuclear fuel components to Koeberg

A new look into why the US blocked exports of nuclear fuel components to Koeberg
(Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In December, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission suspended its licence to Westinghouse Electric Company to export fuel assembly components to its subsidiary in Sweden where they would be assembled into fuel rods and shipped to South Africa for use in Koeberg.

The United States government suspended the sale of nuclear fuel components for the Koeberg nuclear power plant last December because South Africa insisted on its right to manufacture its own nuclear reactor fuel in the future, sources say. This apparently sparked US concerns about the possible proliferation of enriched uranium.

Pretoria argued that it had a right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful uses, as enshrined in international nuclear agreements like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the US disagreed and so the fuel exports from Westinghouse stopped.

Eskom has said it has enough stockpiled fuel to last it three years. After that, it’s not clear where the fuel will come from, though it says it has alternative sources. 

Some commentators have speculated that Washington’s decision to stop the nuclear fuel exports could have been influenced by Pretoria’s rapidly warming relations with Russia since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February last year. But it is not clear if that was the motive. 

In December, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) suspended its licence to Westinghouse Electric Company to export fuel assembly components to its subsidiary in Sweden where they would be assembled into fuel rods and shipped to South Africa for use in Koeberg. 

David Skeen, the NRC’s director of international programmes, explained in a statement in January that the licence to Westinghouse had been issued partly based on South Africa’s assurances that the fuel components would be made subject to the terms of the Agreement for Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (123 Agreement) between the United States and the Government of South Africa. 

“However, the US-RSA 123 Agreement expired on December 4, 2022, and therefore the assurances that supported issuance of the licence are no longer valid,” Skeen added.  

Both South Africa and the US have so far been rather vague about why the 123 Agreement lapsed on 4 December last year without being renewed. They have suggested, without providing details, that both sides were at fault for allowing this to happen.

Manufacture disagreement

But official sources told Daily Maverick the main reason the two sides could not agree on a new 123 Agreement was that South Africa refused to accept a clause that the US insisted on inserting into the new agreement — that South Africa must continue to import nuclear fuel and could not manufacture the fuel itself. Pretoria regarded this as an unwarranted infringement of its rights. 

Official sources have told Daily Maverick that although South Africa had no immediate plans to manufacture nuclear fuel, it wanted to keep open the possibility of doing so. They said there was an “extremely lucrative market” for nuclear fuel, mainly in Africa where they said about seven or eight African countries were considering building nuclear power plants. Only Egypt has actually begun doing so.

They noted that with geopolitical tensions rising because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, many countries might prefer to buy their nuclear fuel from a non-aligned country rather than from Russia or the Western bloc. Russia is now the biggest supplier of the low-enriched uranium used to make fuel for nuclear power plants.

South Africa has asked US officials if the US regards SA as a nuclear proliferation risk. If so, they said it should raise its concerns with the IAEA. If not, it should not restrict SA’s access to the nuclear fuel cycle. 

They have been told that the US does not regard SA as a proliferation risk and that the clause restricting SA’s right to enrich uranium is standard in such agreements. But the South Africans have pointed out that the US has exempted some countries from this restriction so it could do the same for South Africa. These points have apparently been taken on board as the negotiations for a new 123 Agreement continue.  


South Africa has given Washington the assurance that if it does decide to enrich uranium for manufacturing nuclear fuel, it will only do so with full IAEA safeguards and monitoring.

“While the US pays lip service [to allowing all countries peaceful use of nuclear energy] at the multilateral level, at the bilateral level they try to restrict access to the fuel cycle,”  one source complained.

Shortly after the termination of Westinghouse’s licence came to light, an Eskom spokesperson said the suspension of the Westinghouse fuel supply “poses no problem to Koeberg as Eskom has always maintained two nuclear fuel suppliers — Framatome (France) and Westinghouse (US).

“Koeberg has received the fuel required for the current planned outage of Unit 1 from Westinghouse, and this will be used in June 2023,” the spokesperson added, though last week Eskom announced that Koeberg Unit 1 was now in a longer outage, until September, for refuelling and replacement of steam generators.

“For the Unit 2 outage beginning in November 2023, the fuel has been sourced and will be supplied by Framatome,” the Eskom spokesperson said. “This covers Koeberg for the next three years, during which time it will be putting in place a contract for the next supplier. There are no fuel shortages or any other impact expected, therefore.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Fick says:

    Enriching uranium is no small matter. It uses HUGE quantities of ELECTRICITY. These clowns are flying higher and higher on their cloud cuckoo. What a joke.

    • Barry Messenger says:

      Indeed. We can’t even keep the lights on, so what hope have we got of manufacturing our own nuclear reactor fuel…
      We need to do what we can to ensure Koeberg can continue to access what it needs, and do it now. But that would be a step too far for our idiotic government.

    • Ryckard Blake says:

      SA used to enrich uranium at (its own-technology-&-build) Y and Z plants at Pelindaba. They also built a plant (BEVA) which converted the enriched Hex in to fully certified 3.75% UO2 fuel pellets, and made all the containing tubes and structural elements for Koeberg Fuel Assemblies in the same plant. All three plants (plus seven ? bombs) were decommissioned from the mid nineties, but not before BEVA had supplied one complete re-fuelling set to Koeberg.
      Eskom was never keen on adding Pelindaba to its French and American fuel suppliers, and the BEVA plant was sold to the Chinese, allegedly for $1m (Ask Tutu’s son – he was the commission-earning sales agent). The Chinese dismantled the fuel-assembly factory, and re-built it in China exactly as it had been working at Pelindaba.

      • Andrea Naude says:

        So it boils down to ANC cadres making money without any respect to the citizens of SA OR just plain no knowledge of what void they were creating. Just interested in the short term pocket stashing.

      • Barry Messenger says:

        Thanks for that information. I do of course know about the existence of Pelindaba, but have no knowledge of the details of their operations.

        Ignoring the inevitably scandalous sale of the BEVA plant we will also lost a lot of human capital. Tragic.

  • Jacci Babich says:

    The answer to this is simple. The US does not trust the ANC crooks and thieves who make up the SA government any more than we do! Together with the EFF they shame all thinking South Africans by being so disgustingly palsy and supportive of Putin and his murderous and power hungry mob!

  • TherealMalcolm x says:

    Which, my dear Maverick readers, takes us back to the Lady R. Maybe what was off-loaded at Simonstown had nothing to do with weapons. Maybe it was a whole bunch of Radio-active “Fokol” .
    Just saying …….

  • Maria Du Preez says:

    Must be quite hard believing anything SA goverment has to say, considering the daily lies ALL South African citizen are subjected to.

  • Rama Chandra says:

    Once Russia goes democratic, I wonder whether they will appreciate South Africa’s efforts to provide a fig leaf to their last brutal disastrous dictator.

  • Jimbo Smith says:

    Another classic example of the Law of Unintended Consequence!! Idiotic policies against the tide of international sentiment will always be punished! But our ANC led Govt. are beyond peer when it comes to scoring own goals!!

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    This is the first shot across the bows from the US administration in response to the blatant lies from the ANC in relation to Russia. It is both serious enough and also not immediately damaging that it gives room for manoeuvre by both parties, but is the first real signal that the US does not like the lurch into Putin’s arms that we’ve recently taken. It will of course be ignored by the ANC because it’ll only be ordinary South Africans who suffer from the fallout.

  • Allan Wolman Wolman says:

    SA has an abundance of uranium. SA has extremely warm relations with Iran. Iran in the crosshairs of the free world due to its nuclear ambitions .Iran supporting Russia with arms. Going the dots.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    ANC – first try and get it right to educate a few children – and we’d hate to overburden you but maybe also some electricity and clean water. But enriching uranium? Let’s not get silly.

  • David Edwards says:

    We have to wonder whether there is a connection between the SA government allowing the 123 Agreement to lapse and Gwede et al’s intransigence and dogged pursuit of Russian nuclear power courtesy of Vladimir Putin? Another string pulled by their heroic and demonic puppet master perhaps? Alternatively, with Putin’s direct interest in supplying nuclear power to SA, it’s not surprising that the US does not want to sell nuclear fuel to us…

  • Carlo Fourie says:

    As much as I, too, love bashing the SA government, I believe the US, in this case, overstepped the boundary. We have significant resources of uranium in this country and effectively the US wants to cut off that potential income stream. They really are behaving like bullies sometimes, no wonder the Global South isn’t a big fan.

    • walthew.john says:

      Hear hear. From my reading of the article, it seems to me the SA Gov have a strong case.

    • Matsobane Monama says:

      Spot on. We hv alternative sources and a plan to manufacture our own. It will take time but in the end freedom. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

    • Ryckard Blake says:

      Nearly all SA’s very-low-grade uranium is worth extracting only as a by-product of mined gold. At $40-$50/lb of yellowcake, and our unprofitable-below-R16/$ remaining gold resources, no country would be trying to cosy up to SA to get at its uranium.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    Once again incompetent in our “Government” have not put any thought into what they are saying. They do not have the nous to think something through logically before they make a statement of intention

  • As the Lady R affair demonstrates, SA has serious governance issues which make it a proliferation risk.

  • Sarel Lotz says:

    If you want to know the answer ask Mr Zizamele Smodeni Mbambo, deputy director-general for Nuclear Energy, why he did not sign the required documents. The buck stopped at him.

  • Isis Limor says:

    How the hell are we going to make nuclear fuel when we can’t even keep the lights on? Keep the water clean? Oh please. Our government overestimating its ability and importance again.

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