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Electricity Minister Ramokgopa ‘extremely upset’ over delays at Koeberg

Electricity Minister Ramokgopa ‘extremely upset’ over delays at Koeberg
The Koeberg nuclear power station in Cape Town. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

After visiting Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa said he was ‘worried and also extremely upset’ about delays in getting the power plant’s Unit 1 back online.

Speaking at a media briefing on Sunday, Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa said it “should worry us” that Koeberg’s Unit 1 was still not operational after it was taken offline in December 2022 for planned maintenance, refuelling and life-extension works in preparation for its 20-year extension.

The unit at the nuclear power station was meant to return to service 71 days ago and Ramokgopa said the delay was concerning as it left the national grid short of 920 megawatts (MW) of power, equivalent to nearly one stage of load shedding.

Reiterating that “every megawatt counts”, Ramokgopa said the delay in getting Unit 1 operational also “presents the real danger of the overlap between the delayed return of Unit 1 and also the taking out of Unit 2”. Unit 2, which also generates 920MW, is scheduled to go offline for refurbishment in September, although some believe that could be pushed to mid-October.

The steam generators in both units need to be replaced after the government decided to keep Koeberg running instead of shutting it down, as previously planned.

Electrical engineer and energy analyst Chris Yelland explained to Daily Maverick that if Unit 1 came back online this month, as it was meant to, Eskom would have sufficient time to prove the unit is stable before Unit 2 switches off in October. Because Unit 1 is taking so long to come back online, it’s increasingly likely that both Koeberg units will be offline at the same time.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Further delay in life extension of Koeberg nuclear reactor worsens power outlook

If both units were out at the same time, the national grid would lose 1,840MW of electricity. The average energy capacity available this week (based on a five-day average) was about 28,000MW.

The chart below shows that electricity demand averaged 30,430MW from 17-21 July, which was consistent with the previous week’s higher demand profile. Only 28,643MW was available.


(Graphic: Supplied)

For context, Eskom’s total installed base capacity is roughly 46,000MW (larger figures are cited when considering renewable energy IPPs, open-cycle gas turbines and power generated from Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa dam).

Ramokgopa still in the dark

Ramokgopa visited the nation’s only nuclear plant, based in Cape Town, on Thursday, 20 July to see for himself why it was taking so long to get its Unit 1 back online.

“I must say that having gone to Koeberg and gotten the extensive presentation, I’m not even wiser today about the situation,” he told the media, adding that he would elevate his concerns to the Eskom board.

Ramokgopa said that after discussing the problems with Eskom’s team at Koeberg, “I’m absolutely not convinced that we are on track to return Unit 1. I’m none the wiser about our ability to return this Unit 1 as promised and/or before we’re able to take out Unit 2. So that risk still sits there and I remain extremely worried about the situation at Koeberg.”

Forensic investigation?

Yelland, who is also the managing director at EE Business Intelligence, asked the minister during the media briefing on Sunday if he could confirm or clarify information regarding a possible forensic investigation into financial irregularities, delays and other matters at Koeberg involving Eskom and Framatome, the French company that’s installing new steam generators at Koeberg.

Ramokgopa said he would engage with the Eskom board, but that it would be up to the board to determine whether a forensic audit was necessary.

However, he acknowledged: “Where there are significant failures of delivering a project of this magnitude… valid, genuine questions will be asked, and they must be responded to.

“We have to be thorough, leave no stone unturned, to the extent that you are able to find people at fault.

“Whether internally or outside, they might have left or they are intending to leave, pursue them, because the sovereign interests must be protected at all costs, and we will not allow individuals essentially to hold the country at ransom.”

‘Extremely upset’

Ramokgopa said he had formed his own opinions about the situation at Koeberg after his visit but he was “not in the position now to ventilate them in public”.

“I’ve already formulated a view of really what are the issues there,” said the minister. “I’m worried and also extremely upset about what is unfolding at Koeberg.”

Ramokgopa revealed that his “initial preliminary impressions” were that  “some of these things are internal, just our inability to be able to manage a programme and a project of this magnitude, and also manage the players that are within that space”.

The comments came off the back of the announcement that former Eskom chief operating officer (COO) Jan Oberholzer, who retired as COO in April and has since been overseeing key projects, including Koeberg,  is leaving the parastatal at the end of this month.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eskom and its COO Jan Oberholzer to ‘part ways by mutual agreement’

After Oberholzer retired, he took on a fixed-term contract as a consultant providing support to the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station and Kusile Power Station projects at the start of May.

Oberholzer was involved with Koeberg for more than two months, but Eskom’s current chief nuclear officer responsible for the life extension project is Keith Featherstone, who succeeds Riedewaan Bakardien, who resigned and went to Canada after the abandoned Unit 2 steam generator replacement fiasco in 2022.

The risk to Eskom

Ramokgopa said the Eskom board needed to take a serious look at Koeberg’s issues for three reasons:

  • The capital associated with the project (in 2010 it was estimated to cost R20-billion, which some experts say was an undervaluation);
  • The units provide a lot of generation capacity; and
  • Being a nuclear plant, safety will be scrutinised and could lead to further delays.

“We know that this is one of the safest [nuclear plants] in the world. But the more you delay, it suggests that there is something that is brewing there that might be a safety concern, and you don’t want that narrative to gain traction going forward,” said Ramokgopa.

Blaze at Grootvlei coal-fired power plant

On Saturday, 22 July, a fire broke out in Unit 2 of the Grootvlei Power Plant in Gauteng.

Eskom reported that the unit, which had been online and generating 175MW of electricity, was manually shut down following the fire, which was caused by a leaking fuel oil supply/return pipeline.

The fire was contained and extinguished within an hour with no injuries sustained and the Eskom team isolated the sources of fuel, preventing catastrophic damage to the unit.

“Investigations are currently under way to establish the cause of the leak as well as the nature and extent of the damage caused,” said Eskom in a statement on Sunday night, adding that the unit’s return to service would be determined in due course.

Ramokgopa said he would go to Grootvlei to personally assess the damage.

He said that while fires happen regularly and were acknowledged to be an inherent risk in power generation, “When it happens, it has to worry all of us.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kevin Schaafsma says:

    Does SA have any of its own nuclear power station technicians at a senior level who know how to run and maintain a nuclear power station? And train others.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Oooh, the minister is so upset he’s turning stones! (As if) If Cele is to be believed (SA’s epic stone turner), it means bugger-all. Be careful, Minister Sparky, the poor/disenfranchised have ways of turning turned stones into an opportunity – getting stoned at work is not recommended.

    • Sydney Kaye says:

      Yes. ” Leaving no stone unturned” together with “face the full might of the law” are hilarious lines ftom the ANC show.
      But he’s right about one thing when he says “I’m not even wiser today about the situation,”

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        ha ha – along with “war room”, “without fear or favour”, “comrades”, “management”, “prima facie” and about a million other Pythonesque examples of classic overuse.

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        I personally would pay big money to see a South African “Spitting Image” equivalent. There is just sooooo much material.

  • Karsten Döpke says:

    ” the sovereign interests must be protected at all costs, and we will not allow individuals essentially to hold the country at ransom.”
    I wonder if this includes members of the ruling party and their associates…?

  • Peter Geddes says:

    I’m very happy that Keith Featherstone is responsible. I worked under him as an engineer at Koeberg and have full confidence in his abilities!
    I just hope that the politicians support him in a difficult engineering challenge and stop making stupid comments about narratives, etc.

  • Scott Gordon says:

    Too little too late .
    no positive signs when unit 1 will be working and running 🙂
    Maybe September ?
    Unit 2 goes off around that time .
    Then only +- 8 months left before the licence expires !!
    R20 billion in 2010 , as others have said , closer to double that now .
    Also heard that they will need a ‘running in ‘ period of about 200 days . If the plant gets fixed in time .
    Given that the Chinese company supplying a generator ‘ dropped ‘ it some 20 months ago , was it fixed properly ?
    No idea of all that is involved in the licence deal , if one expires .
    Fix unit 1 , keep 2 running until the licence expires .
    Not much mention of the herd of elephants in the room .
    No cash or plan to decommission the plant or store the old fuel !
    Seems like another ‘ perfect storm ‘ !

  • Greg Knill says:

    Koeberg has already exceeded its design life. It should be decommissioned at this point. Naturally that will cost more than the construction did, and the ANC can’t politically afford to be seen spending gazillions on taking capacity from the grid. So the thing will get increasingly wonky till it breaks. The generators are one thing, but there are 6 heat exchangers (3 per unit) which are within the containment vessels which must be replaced. Naturally these are incredibly radioactive, and each is the size of a 727 fuselage. The notion of pulling them out and popping in new ones is really not viable from a risk and cost perspective.
    At this point the ANC is increasingly imperilling Cape Town. And on a cheerful note, there is no insurance cover for nuclear accidents (because insurance companies have actuaries who can work out the odds).

    • Biff Trotters says:

      Those “heat exchangers” are better known as steam generators, the very ones being replaced. Not to be confused with the generators attached to the steam turbines.

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