South Africa’s Eskom is struggling to complete refurbishment of its flagship nuclear facility, raising doubts about its future and threatening even worse energy blackouts in the continent’s most industrialised country.
South Africa’s homes and businesses are routinely left without power for up to 10 hours a day as years of under-investment have left electricity monopoly Eskom struggling to meet demand. While it mostly relies on coal-fuelled power, Eskom is hoping to extend the lifespan of the 40-year-old Koeberg station, the only nuclear plant in Africa, by 20 years. The licence is due to expire in 2024-2025.
André de Ruyter, Eskom’s chief executive, told South African legislators this week that Koeberg’s extension project had been “extremely poorly managed” with delays and escalation of costs beyond an estimated R20bn ($1.1bn). The utility declined to give a new figure.
On Friday, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government appointed a new board for Eskom.
Pravin Gordhan, the minister overseeing the utility, said that Eskom’s overall generating performance “is just not good enough”, but added that Koeberg’s extension was still on schedule. “Clearly there has been some mishaps around some of the processes . . . but I’m informed that this is well on its way,” Gordhan added.
Koeberg generates about 5 per cent of South Africa’s electricity but will be central to the country’s energy security as Ramaphosa’s government faces a two- to three-year wait for ambitious plans for private renewable supply to come to fruition.
“In South Africa right now, there is not very much else that is available if Koeberg does close [in 2024-2025],” said Hartmut Winkler, professor of physics at Johannesburg university and an analyst of South Africa’s nuclear sector.
International Atomic Energy Agency observers gave the green light this year to what was considered the routine extension of what has long been Eskom’s most reliable plant. “If everything had gone to plan, they would have had the upgrades finished a year before the licence runs out,” Winkler said. “They should be telling people exactly what is going wrong.”
Eskom did not respond to requests for comment on what has been the problem with the lifespan extension, or a recent exodus of nuclear personnel, including Eskom’s chief nuclear officer and Koeberg’s acting general manager.
About 85 per cent of Eskom’s supply is from decades-old coal plants and two newer ones, Medupi and Kusile, that constantly malfunction. “They break down as fast as they are repaired,” Winkler said. “That is really the problem. There might be periods where we go whole months without any load shedding [power cuts], but also where suddenly we go into stage six load shedding. That’s the pattern we can expect for the next three years.”
Any further delays to renewing Koeberg or completing the still unfinished Kusile plant “will further exacerbate load shedding in 2023 to catastrophic levels exceeding three times those experienced in 2021,” Meridian Economics, an energy consultancy, warned this year.
Elsewhere in Africa, this year Egypt began construction of a nuclear power station with Russian assistance, and the IAEA approved a plan for Uganda to build east Africa’s first plant. In South Africa, Gwede Mantashe, the energy minister, has advocated building a new 2,500 megawatt nuclear plant in the Eastern Cape by 2024.
Previous corruption scandals have cast a shadow over nuclear procurement. Jacob Zuma, the former South African president, wanted to construct nearly 10,000 megawatts of nuclear power with Russian help at an estimated cost of R1tn. South African courts ultimately blocked his plans.
“I just don’t see [new nuclear power in South Africa] ever taking off,” Winkler said. “We have seen Medupi and Kusile, which are the main reasons Eskom is in such financial difficulty. I don’t see how building a new nuclear plant is going to lead to anything better than that.”