Several serious and costly blunders by Eskom and French contractor Framatome are to blame for substantial delays in the critical Koeberg life extension project, according to sources who spoke to Sunday newspaper Rapport.
These mishaps have now led to demands and counter-demands between the two parties, which experts are concerned threaten further slowdowns and billions in cost overruns.
Eskom cannot afford to lose any more time on the project, which aims to extend Koeberg’s 40-year lifespan to 60 years.
The utility’s chief nuclear officer Keith Featherstone recently said that Koeberg Unit 1, the first to undergo the replacement of its steam generators, “will” be back online on 3 November 2023.
That is roughly five months after it was initially scheduled to return to service and two months after Eskom’s revised date of mid-September 2023.
The unit has been offline since 10 December 2022, resulting in the loss of 920MW of net generating capacity from South Africa’s sole nuclear power station.
Featherstone blamed the delay on “unanticipated” obstacles and issues with integrating a local workforce for the project.
Unit 2 is scheduled to go offline for the same procedure from 7 November 2023.
If it takes as long as Unit 1, it might only be returned to service by October 2024, months after Koeberg’s original operating licence expires.
If Eskom refurbished both units at the same time, it would result in the station’s total capacity of 1,860MW being unavailable.
That is equal to nearly two full stages of load-shedding. It would also put increased pressure on Cape Town, which would have to rely solely on power from the northern parts of the country.
To avoid missing further deadlines, Eskom has applied to the National Nuclear Regulator to separate its licences for the two units.
It argues that because Unit 2 only came into operation about a year after Unit 1, its initial lifespan expires in November 2025, not July 2024.
Eskom started planning for the Koeberg refurbishment in 2010 and approached the market for service providers that could supply the steam generators.
A R5-billion contract was awarded to Framatome, known as Areva at the time, in August 2014. That was despite the US’s Westinghouse offering a cheaper price.
Eskom said Areva was chosen due to “strategic considerations”. It later won a drawn-out court case that went up to the Constitutional Court, giving it the all-clear to use Areva/Framatome.
Sources told Rapport that the casting of the generators in France was a complete disaster.
After engaging with Eskom over the issue, one of Areva’s partners transported the generators to China for repair work.
Due to their 320-tonne weight, Rapport’s sources said they had to be carried on six expensive flights using Russian Antonov cargo planes.
It was unclear which versions of the planes were used.
The now-destroyed Ukrainian Antonov An-225 Mriya can carry loads of up to 250 tonnes, while an upgraded version of the smaller An-124 can handle 150 tonnes.
Each of the six generators weighing 320 tons raises questions about how they were transported on just six Antonov flights.
The generators may have been stripped down to core components needing repair, or perhaps not all six were actually sent to China.
In any event, upon the arrival of the generators, inspections determined that they were completely unusable, and production had to restart from scratch.
Eskom said this was done at Areva/Framatome’s own cost.
The original delivery date for the steam generators was February 2018, but this only happened in September 2020.
Framatome has supposedly racked up the maximum penalty amount that could be imposed for delays due to its mistakes.
Although the amount of these fines is unknown, Rapport said several sources revealed the company is now losing money on the project.
Eskom, meanwhile, last said the original 2014 budget of R20 billion has remained unchanged.
While Framatome carries significant blame for the steam generator deliveries, Eskom’s errors since then have only exacerbated the delays.
The utility was slapped with a reported R1-billion penalty for an embarrassing failure when the refurbishment project kicked off at the start of 2022.
The initial plan would see Unit 2 refurbished first, and it was taken offline for this procedure in January 2022.
But Eskom was left with egg on its face after it emerged the storage facility intended for the old generators was not completed.
Unit 2’s refurbishment was subsequently delayed so that Eskom could use the unit during the winter peak demand period. However, a series of additional issues led to the unit only fully returning to service in late September 2022.
The timeline below shows some of the issues experienced with Unit 2 since it was first taken down for refurbishment:
- January 2022 — Taken down for refuelling and maintenance
- March 2022 — Maintenance schedule adjusted after discovering containment building was not completed
- End June 2022 — Original planned date for return to service
- Mid-July 2022 — New return-to-service date due to defects picked up during commissioning
- End July 2022 — Third revised date after unexpected issues detected in unit’s polar crane
- 5 August 2022 — Unit synchronisation begins, with ramp-up to full capacity expected within ten days
- 19 August 2022 — Unit taken offline due to mechanical problem with control rod
- 3 September 2022 — Unit trips at full capacity during control rod test
- 25 September 2022 — Unit returned to service
- 15 April 2023 — Unit trips and goes offline for a day
In the nearly four decades leading up to the start of its refurbishment project, Koeberg was Eskom’s most reliable power station.
According to reports, electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa is fuming over the delays and has referred the matter to Eskom’s board for investigation.
Another development of interest in the Koeberg delays is former Eskom COO Jan Oberholzer’s abrupt departure from the utility after being employed on contract to assist with the life extension operations.