Cape Town - Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has backed the much-delayed and “most complex” steam generator replacement (SGR) project at the Koeberg nuclear power plant.
The unprecedented project, worth billions, has been marred by workers’ suspensions emanating from the hostile NUM-Eskom relationship and operational delays of the project.
The project – which was estimated to cost R20 billion in 2010 – is a key factor in whether the plant’s life span is extended for a further 20 years, beyond July 2024.
Built by the French between 1978 and 1984, the plant’s 40-year operational licence is coming to an end.
Earlier this year, Eskom announced a planned outage for unit 1 in Koeberg as part of the SGR project, and the outage was supposed to begin in October, but the delays pushed the restart to December.
Mantashe, in his response, did not specify when work on the project would resume.
Eskom’s work around the clock to get the licence extended is threatened by delays to the SGR project, which was yet again postponed – to 2023 – after mismanagement which led to the suspension of project manager Justice Gumede with full pay.
Eskom chiefs in late September told MPs that details of the probe into Gumede would be finalised before October, but on Monday, NUM provincial shop steward at Eskom Phumzile Mvovo said there was no update on the matter yet.
In parliamentary questions, IFP MP Professor Christian Msimang asked Mantashe for the reasons for the latest postponement to the “relatively straightforward” Koeberg upgrade and life extension programme, and what assurances Mantashe could give about the capacity of the nuclear sector in SA.
Mantashe said the SGR had been postponed from the recent Koeberg Unit 2 outage because the revised project plan, which was developed before any non-reversible work being performed, had by and large exceeded the time available in the outage schedule for the project.
“It is the most complex undertaking that has and will be undertaken at Koeberg power station,” Mantashe said, adding that the project requires “high-quality precision workmanship in difficult conditions, while manoeuvring extremely large components”.
“The revision to the project plan was required due to delays experienced during the initial phase of the steam generator project and to accommodate the state of readiness of needed facilities,” Mantashe said.
“Due to the importance of returning the Koeberg Unit 2 back to service in accordance with the Eskom generation plan to avoid electricity supply challenges during the high demand winter period, the decision was made to defer the replacement to the next outage on this unit.”
He shot down the MP’s suggestion of weakness in the nuclear sector.
“In the past many projects have been successfully completed at Koeberg, therefore the conservative decision to defer the project should not be used as a reflection of the capability of the nuclear sector.
“The Koeberg life extension project is a first-of-a-kind for South Africa, tapping into international expertise from steam generator manufacturing in China and engineering support by France (Framatome) in the midst of Covid-19, which came with its challenges,” Mantashe said.
He said Eskom had safely operated the Koeberg nuclear power station for almost 40 years and that on its own shows the capacity within South Africa to safely operate and maintain nuclear power plants.
“The department continues to monitor the implementation of the Koeberg long-term operation to ensure the security of energy supply, in line with the Integrated Resource Plan of 2019,” said Mantashe.
He said the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation had safely managed the Safari-1 research reactor for almost six decades at Pelindaba, west of Pretoria.
“This provides an assurance on the impeccable experience for the South Africa nuclear sector.”