South Africa’s only nuclear power plant, Koeberg, has been in the news a lot in 2022, and all for the wrong reasons.

Its operating license expires in 2024, and its continued operation depends on major renovation and modernization. Work on them finally began in January of this year, but immediately ran into difficulties, leading to significant delays.

Koeberg is only providing half capacity while the works are underway. This has exacerbated the dire power shortages that South Africa is experiencing. This state of affairs, where the country actually has 3% less available generating power than it would otherwise have, is expected to continue for most of the next two years.

Other possible signs of turbulence associated with Koeberg include:

  • deferred application to the nuclear regulator to renew the station’s license
  • the controversial dismissal by the Minister of Mineral and Energy Resources of one of the members of the regulator’s council – an opponent of nuclear energy
  • resignations of Køberg’s senior staff, although there is no evidence that this was due to friction.

All of this has led to speculation that Koeberg’s life extension practice is in trouble. In turn, this calls into question the strength of South Africa’s nuclear sector and is likely to put to bed the very ambitious proposals so far in the sector to build new nuclear power plants.

The story of Keberg

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

The plant consists of two units with a capacity of just over 900 megawatts each, and together they account for approximately 5% of South Africa’s electricity.

The Koeberg was built by the French company Framatome between 1978 and 1984. In accordance with international practice, the plant received a 40-year license for operation, which expires in July 2024. The plant can be licensed for another 20 years if it meets certain safety criteria. They usually include certain upgrades and replacement of various components.

Until now, the station has been operating quite safely, with only relatively minor incidents recorded.

Some civil society groups have called for Koeberg to be closed after its current license expires in 2024. South Africa’s extreme electricity crisis would make such a shutdown very difficult. Although the construction of new nuclear plants is extremely expensive and time-consuming, extending the life of an existing plant is in principle achievable in the short term and financially justifiable.

Koeberg’s life extension was also included in the government’s 2019 Comprehensive Power Resource Plan.

Nuclear activity in South Africa is overseen by the National Nuclear Regulatory Authority. The regulator is expected to 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 for the safe operation of the plant for the next 20 years. The most significant of them is the replacement of steam generators.

It is predicted that the cost of modernization will be 20 billion rubles. Most of these funds will go towards the purchase and installation of six new steam generators.

The need to replace them was identified more than 10 years ago, but protracted litigation over who would do the work stalled the project. As a result, the operation was scheduled for 2022.

Life extension project

For the replacement and upgrades required to extend the 20-year operating license, each Koeberg unit must be shut down for a scheduled five months. Therefore, Unit 2 was shut down on January 18, 2022 and was scheduled to reopen in June 2022. Power unit 1 was supposed to go through the same process starting in October.

Then things went wrong. The critical replacement of the steam generator was again postponed to 2023. The full reasons have not been officially revealed.

But there were no denied reports that on-site storage facilities for radioactively contaminated old steam generators were not ready.

Delays in starting up and running the Koeberg 2 unit on schedule resulted in an additional 900MW capacity shortfall during South Africa’s last major blackout in mid-winter.

Unit No. 2 finally restarted on August 7, almost two months later than planned. Another blackout of comparable duration is still required in 2023.

Value for the atomic industry

The mishandling of the Koeberg life extension project raises serious questions about the strength of South Africa’s nuclear sector.

This sector advocated the construction of a large fleet of new nuclear plants, taking into account that this could be done without significant costs and overruns of time. But Koeberg’s much smaller and much simpler update didn’t go over well.

South Africa must abandon any ambitions for new nuclear power plants.

Instead, the nuclear sector should focus on its more modest goal of completing the Koeberg upgrade, running the plant for another 20 years, and then completing the potentially problematic decommissioning.

Hartmut Winkler, Professor of Physics at the University of Johannesburg.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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