extending the life of the Koeberg nuclear power plant

South Africa’s only nuclear power plant, Koeberg, has often made headlines in 2022, all for the wrong reasons.

Its operating license expires in 2024 and continued operation thereafter is dependent on critical renovations and upgrades. Work on these finally began in January this year, but immediately ran into difficulties, leading to significant delays.

Koeberg only provides half of its electricity while the work is in progress. This has amplified the crippling electricity shortages that South Africa is experiencing. This situation, where the country effectively has 3% less generating capacity than it otherwise would have, is expected to persist for most of the next two years.

Other potential signs of turbulence related to Koeberg include:

  • the late application to the nuclear regulatory authority to extend the license of the plant

  • the controversial dismissal of one of the regulator’s board members – a nuclear opponent – by the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy

  • resignations of senior executives from Koeberg, although there is no evidence that these were due to friction.

All of this has led to speculation that Koeberg’s life extension exercise is in trouble. In turn, it casts doubt on the capacity of the South African nuclear industry and risks putting to bed the very ambitious proposals still being advocated within the industry to build new nuclear power plants.

Koeberg’s story

Koeberg, Africa’s only operational nuclear power plant, 27km north of Cape Town city centre, is nearing the end of its planned life cycle.

The plant consists of two units of just over 900 megawatts each and together they contribute around 5% of South Africa’s electricity.

Koeberg was built by the French company Framatome between 1978 and 1984. In accordance with international practice, the factory has been granted a 40-year operating license which will expire in July 2024. The authorization for the factory for a further 20 years is possible, as long as it meets specific security criteria. These usually involve particular upgrades and the replacement of various components.

So far, the plant has operated reasonably safely, with only relatively minor incidents recorded.

Some civil society groups have called for Koeberg to be shut down when its current license expires in 2024. South Africa’s extreme electricity crisis would make such a shutdown very difficult to absorb. While the construction of new nuclear power plants is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, extending the life of an existing plant is in principle feasible in the short term and financially defensible.

Extending Koeberg’s life was also considered in the government-approved 2019 Integrated Power Resource Plan.

Nuclear activities in South Africa are controlled by the National Nuclear Regulator. The regulator should be guided by recommendations drawn up by experts commissioned by the International Atomic Energy Agency who inspected Koeberg in 2019. These recommendations include technical interventions to operate the plant safely for another 20 years. The most important of these is the replacement of steam generators.

The upgrade is expected to cost 20 billion rand ($1.2 billion). Most of this amount would be used for the purchase and installation of six new steam generators.

The need to replace them was identified more than 10 years ago, but a protracted dispute over who would do the job has delayed the project. The operation was finally scheduled for 2022.

Life extension project

Replacements and upgrades necessary to warrant a 20-year operating license extension require each Koeberg unit to be shut down for five months. Unit 2 was therefore shut down on January 18, 2022 and was due to reopen in June 2022. Unit 1 was then to undergo the same process from October.

Things then turned sour. The critical replacement of the steam generator has again been postponed until 2023. The full reasons have not been officially disclosed. But there was no denial of reports that on-site storage facilities for old steam generators now contaminated with radioactivity were not ready.

The delay in commissioning Koeberg Unit 2 on schedule resulted in an additional shortfall of 900 MW during the last winter period of severe blackouts in South Africa.

Unit 2 finally started operating again on August 7, almost two months later than planned. Another shutdown of comparable duration is still necessary in 2023.

Importance for the nuclear sector

The mismanagement of the Koeberg life extension project raises serious questions about the capacity of the South African nuclear industry. This sector has advocated the construction of a large fleet of new nuclear power plants, which implies that this could be done without major cost and time overruns. But Koeberg’s much smaller and much simpler upgrade didn’t go well.

South Africa should abandon any ambition for new nuclear power stations. Instead, the nuclear industry should focus on its more modest goal of completing the Koeberg upgrade, operating the plant for another 20 years, and then completing the potentially problematic decommissioning.

About Mitchel McMillan

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