Introduction: Koeberg and the Fight for a just Energy Mix in South Africa
Since the beginning of 2023, South Africa has been experiencing debilitating load shedding that has caused significant damage to the country’s economy, social cohesion and reputation as an attractive destination for investments, leisure tourism and conferencing. Both large and small businesses are losing millions of man hours every day because there is no power to run their operations. The debilitating outages have forced a reckoning for South Africa’s baseload capacity whilst also inspiring what is nothing short of a miracle in the growth of green electricity. While the green revolution is to be celebrated, we also need to wonder what are the implications as the country makes decisions on extending the shelf-life of some old coal and the lone nuclear power station, Koeberg.
South Africa's Installed capacity
South Africa currently has about 62,000MW of installed power generation capacity, of which 48,000MW is government owned. The rest is owned by private companies (mining companies, paper & pulp manufacturers), farms and homes.
South Africans have always been very proud and protective of the country’s baseload capacity (i.e. power stations that supply electricity 24/7 regardless of the vagaries of weather, which in South Africa’s case is mostly coal). It is very common to hear people talking about how cheap coal helped the country build global behemoths like ARMSKOR, De Beers, ISKOR, TRANSNET, etc.
Cheap coal also helped South Africa to become one of the most electrified countries on the African continent. South Africa’s electricity penetration rate currently stands at 85%. The country consumes over 60% of the electricity that is produced in Africa.
Unreliable old power stations impeding socioeconomic growth
Many South Africans have therefore been very shocked and confused to witness the many struggles of the country’s baseload capacity in recent years. The situation is so bad that nobody is talking about retiring Koeberg and its 1860MW anymore. Actually, the talk is about extending its lifespan by another twenty years.
Medupi and Kusile with a combined generation capacity of 9,500MW were supposed to help end the country’s dependence on old power stations while also increasing capacity to mirror demographic and industrial growth. However, these stations have faced numerous problems since they were constructed.
Medupi has experienced numerous technical problems including boiler design and construction issues, welding quality - which has led to leaks and cracks in the boilers - and control and instrumentation problems. Similar to Medupi, Kusile has faced challenges including boiler welding issues, water availability and so on.
Koeberg, the nuclear power station which supplies 5% of the country’s power, is doing relatively well. Koeberg is the only nuclear power station in Africa (for now). It was built in two stages, with Unit 1 being commissioned in 1984 and Unit 2 in 1985. It has a total nameplate capacity of 1,940 megawatts (MW), with each unit having a capacity of 970 MW.
In 2018, Koeberg replaced one of its steam generators, which had been in service for more than 30 years. In April 2021, it performed a maintenance outage on its Unit 1.
Koeberg is currently extending the lifespan of its reactors beyond their original design life, which was expected to be 40 years. The power station has already submitted its safety case and Long Term Operation Plan to the South African National Nuclear Regulator as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency’s SALTO, the Safety Aspects of Long Term Operation review mission. Interestingly, on April 15 2023, as this article was being finalised, a few thousand kilometres away Germany officially began powering down its last three nuclear power plants.
Extending Koeberg’s lifespan comes with a number of safety, environmental and operational risks. Nuclear power stations operate with highly radioactive materials and have complex systems and safety features to prevent accidents and mitigate their consequences. As nuclear power stations age, they may become less efficient and require more maintenance and repairs. Extending their lifespan could result in increased downtime and reduced efficiency even when upgrades and modifications are made to improve performance.
Koeberg has always had a reputation for steadiness and reliability. Some commentators even used to say that they would love to keep Koeberg and (it being in Cape Town and all) and give the rest of ‘very poorly run ESKOM’ to the rest of the country. This is all part of the racist ‘Republic of Cape Town’ discussion and that kind of nonsense.
On April 15 2023, Koeberg Unit 2 tripped, sending the country into Stage Six load shedding. The trips in Unit 2 effectively meant total blackout at Koeberg and this once again brought into sharp focus the need to diversify South Africa’s energy mix.
Although new Electricity Minister Ramokgoba has sought to reassure diehard-baseload South Africans of the longevity of coal by making dismissive statements about new solar and wind stations, the fact is that these new stations are helping South Africa avert complete disaster.
Koeberg’s emergent issues raise two key things. Firstly, it is important to scrutinise Koeberg’s extension plans as well as the human resources it plans to use to run its units into the future. There is a global scramble for energy right now and Koeberg’s employees are in demand. Secondly, the Integrated Resource Plan needs to be revised because only a good mix of energy sources can help South Africa end load shedding.
The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation is doing a yearlong research project to look at Koeberg’s long term operation plan and what it means for the country’s safety and energy availability.