Andrew Kenny: Nuclear crossroads, Koeberg’s struggles and the energy dilemma

The Koeberg Nuclear Power Station grapples with a series of issues and internal conflicts. While it stands as a cornerstone of South Africa’s power history, recent mishaps and disputes have shaken its reputation. As debates rage over nuclear versus renewable energy, nuclear’s potential, backed by a wealth of uranium and thorium, remains vast. Solar and wind, though useful for small-scale applications, falter on the grid, unlike nuclear’s reliability. Amidst global shifts, Koeberg’s challenges persist, with a crucial replacement operation at Unit 2 looming, underscoring the complexities of nuclear energy’s future in South Africa.

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Nuclear is best, but stop the squabbling at Koeberg

By Andrew Kenny

There has been a series of silly problems and silly squabbles at the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station over the last few years. Things will come to a head in early November. 

Since nuclear power is by far our best option for future electricity supply, since Koeberg is the best power station in South African history, and since the French, who built and serviced Koeberg, did a wonderful job in the past, it is very disappointing that there has been such incompetence both from Koeberg and from the French, and such a breakdown of trust and cooperation between them.

A false argument rages in our media and among our politicians and activists about whether nuclear or “renewables” are better for our electricity supply. “Renewables” here usually means wind and solar, which is silly since nuclear is as renewable as solar and wind. There are such enormous amounts of uranium and thorium in the ground and the sea that nuclear energy can power the whole world until the Sun turns into a red giant in five billion years’ time and boils the oceans dry. We should use all of them, but each in its right place. 

Solar and wind are excellent for a wide range of off-grid applications, such as providing small amounts of electricity in remote areas or in households where electricity supply is uncertain. My Wi-Fi at home only needs a tiny amount of power which could easily come from a solar photovoltaic (PV) panel and a small battery. 

For grid electricity, solar and wind are utterly useless, as has been shown in every country that has tried them, including Germany, the UK, the US, South Africa and Australia, especially South Australia. They always lead to rocketing electricity prices and increasing electricity failures. Even huge amounts of extra solar and wind on our grid will do little to reduce load-shedding, if anything. 

Solar and wind require colossal amounts of raw materials and have severe environmental problems. Nuclear is not much good for small applications but excellent for grid electricity. It is safe, clean, reliable, sustainable and very economical. Because of nature, solar and wind can never be successful for grid electricity. Because of nature, nuclear can be successful for grid electricity and has been so in many countries, including France. Unfortunately, France has lost her way over the last few decades, and Koeberg is suffering because of it.

The recent troubles at Koeberg have been caused by the replacing of its steam generators (SGs). SGs are heat exchangers: at one end, hot water from the reactor goes in and comes out a bit colder; at the other end, cold water comes in from the feed pumps and goes out as steam to drive the turbines that turn the generators to make electricity. 

There are two units at Koeberg: Units 1 and 2. Each unit has one reactor and three SGs. Each SG is about 21 metres long. I have explained this before but let me give a brief summary here. (Please skip this bit if you like.) Koeberg’s reactors, like most reactors around the world, are Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs). The reactor is immersed in water, which it heats but never boils. There is a maximum temperature for liquid water, however high the pressure, of 374 deg C. In practice the hottest water from the Koeberg reactor is about 320 deg C. This makes steam in the SGs at about 270 deg C. This is a low temperature compared with that of the steam in coal power stations. The lower the temperature, the less efficient the power station, but also the less wear it suffers and therefore the longer it lasts. 

Koeberg has now been operating for nearly 40 years, and there is no engineering reason (as opposed to regulation reason) why it should not continue to run in perfect safety for another 40 years. In reactors of Koeberg’s vintage (building began in 1976) there was a corrosion problem in the SGs. Around the world they began to replace them with new ones using better materials. It turned out that Koeberg’s SGs did not have these problems. This was because Koeberg’s water treatment was especially good and because its reactors ran at about 9 deg C lower than the design temperature. Koeberg did not really need to change the SGs but decided to do so to comply with international good practice. Koeberg went out to tender for their replacement in 2010, and then the pains began.

Two companies tendered: Areva of France and Westinghouse of Japan/USA. By every measure the Westinghouse tender was better, and everyone expected it to win. But at the eleventh hour, Malusi Gigaba, Minister of Public Enterprises, vetoed the award. This seemed very suspicious. They went out to tender again, and again Westinghouse was expected to win but did not. This seemed even murkier, and one smelt corruption, although it has never been identified. Areva then proceeded to make a complete pig’s ear of building the SGs, subcontracting them to China, who messed them up at the first attempt and dropped one of them. 

This caused long delays, much to the chagrin of Eskom and Koeberg, who began to invoke penalty clauses, which infuriated the French. Eventually good SGs were delivered to Koeberg in 2020, and a programme was set for their installation at Unit 1. Replacing SGs is a big operation but a routine one, which has been done successfully many times around the world. There is a specialist team with specialist equipment that knows exactly how to do it. 

The team arrived at Koeberg and set about its preparations, when it found to its horror that Koeberg had not done its preparations, including the building of a simple shed to receive the old SGs for cleaning and preparation for final disposal. The job had to be abandoned. There was more upset and reproachment, more penalties to be paid. Finally this year, the team came back to Koeberg, where the special shed had been built. The old SGs were successfully cut out and the new ones successfully installed, but over a longer time than had been scheduled – much longer.  Unit 1 still has to be refueled, started up and tested.

The problem is this. Unit 2 at Koeberg is due to have its SGs replaced in November this year. If Unit 1 is not on power by then, it will mean both units will be down, so threatening us with even more load-shedding. With the old SGs, each Koeberg unit produces about 930 MW. With the new SGs, it will initially produce about 955 MW, and then some more after other operating modifications. This requires careful calibration of instruments and the checking of temperatures and steam flows after the start-up of Unit 1, which will take time. 

At Koeberg there are now angry squabbles between Eskom and Framatome, the engineering arm of Areva, over penalties and payments. Framatome is threatening not to pay its sub-contractors until these disputes have been resolved, and the sub-contractors are warning that without payment they will not be able to work on Unit 2. A horrible mess, distasteful and unnecessary.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French showed the world how to make a success of nuclear power. They first used American designs, and then graduated to their own designs, all of which worked well. They had a continuous, predictable programme of building nuclear plants, and so developed experienced and skilful construction teams and operating teams.

They built Koeberg with complete success, even though its building was interrupted by sabotage. France eventually got over 75% of her electricity from nuclear power, very reliably, and with some of the lowest prices in Europe. She exported electricity to Germany and other neighbouring countries. Then things went wrong. 

Green politics were partly to blame: the socialist President Hollande pledged to cut back nuclear power, to the applause of the greens. This demoralised the nuclear industry, since it meant they would be building no more new stations. But they were to blame too. They became complacent and neglected their experienced workforce. They designed a cumbersome and over-complicated new reactor, the EPR. They made an awful mess of building the first EPR in Finland. 

They were hopelessly over budget and behind schedule. Worse, they began squabbling with the Finns, blaming them for their own mistakes and engaging in very expensive legal battles with them – far worse than their recent ones with Koeberg. They made a mess with building an EPR in Flamanville, in their own country. They had neglected to do standard maintenance and repair on their existing reactors, especially in the routine problems of pipe cracks. So their own electricity production has faltered in recent years.

The French nuclear industry now seems to be reforming itself, getting on with the work of bringing its reactors back into good shape and good production. But right now, if South Africa decides to go strongly for more nuclear power, as she must, I should not advise having a French vendor. Nor would I advise an American one since, although America has designed an excellent reactor, the AP1000, she has made a shambles of the construction of the first one at Vogtle. I’d advise a vendor from Russia, South Korea or China, all of whom have good recent records of constructing excellent, safe, reliable, affordable nuclear plants on budget and on schedule. Maybe Japan should be considered too, since she can certainly build plants on time, although her nuclear regulation leaves a lot to be desired.  

In light of the current meeting of the BRICS countries in South Africa, it is interesting that all of them seem strongly in favour of nuclear and two of them, Russia and China, are world leaders in the field.

Back at home, the latest non-crisis at Koeberg comes from a 290-page safety report entitled the “Time Limited Ageing Analysis”. This is a report required by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) to demonstrate that Koeberg will be safe to operate for the next 20 years, that Koeberg is fully aware of likely problems in that time, and has a programme for fixing them. 

The problems are the routine ones such as pipe cracks, ageing cables and nozzles, worn pressure vessel internals and so on – all as routine as changing the tyres, brake pads and oil on your car, and checking the fan belts and wheel alignment. The report was handed in to the NNR and a version of it was given to the public. But anti-nuclear groups, including the Koeberg Alert Alliance, say the public version has been heavily redacted. (When in heaven’s name did we start using redacted instead of altered or revised?) Eskom said that indeed information from the original report had been redacted as this “could cause harm to the commercial and/or financial interests”. I suppose this means that companies making repair equipment or supplying repair services wanted to assure the NNR that their equipment and methods were safe but did not want competitors to know their trade secrets. If Coca-Cola was asked by a food regulator to give a full report on the safety of its drinks, I suppose it should not be required to make public its secret recipe for making them. (Actually all sugary soft drinks are much more dangerous than nuclear power, but that is a different argument.)

Koeberg has a splendid record of delivering reliable and cheap electricity. It is in pretty good shape and is very safe. Probably its biggest concern is its containment buildings (those two big concrete cylinders that contain the reactors and SGs). They are under continual threat from one of the deadliest liquids known to man: sea water. Salt spray could corrode the massive steel reinforcing bars in the containment concrete and the steel sinews that keep the concrete under compression. But there are well known methods of preventing such corrosion, such as forcing a counter electrical voltage into it which prevents any corroding current from flowing. Koeberg is already employing such a method. Under normal times, there would be miniscule radiation from the reactors without any containment at all; the containment is there in the case of accidents, which have only happened three times in the history of nuclear power, and only once with harm to the public.

“If you think Koeberg is so safe, how would you like to live next to it?” I’d love to! As a matter of fact I did live for a few weeks in Edward Crescent in Melkbos, right next to Koeberg, while I was doing some work there. It was lovely. The national park around Koeberg is beautiful, wild, peaceful and interesting with wonderful birdlife. The coast there is magnificent. And Koeberg was the safest industrial site I’ve ever worked at. The trouble is I can’t afford to live there since Koeberg seems to have pushed Melkbos property prices sky high. Perhaps this is the one unfortunate outcome of South African nuclear power.

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*Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission

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