Koeberg nuclear power plant life extension costs vastly underestimated

  • The Koeberg Alert Alliance unpacks the detais of a report titled Submission on Koeberg Refurbishment which was sent to Treasury in early July 2023 by Lydia Petersen.
  • Issues are mounting at the Koeberg nuclear plant as the life extension project gets further and further behind schedule, the exodus of skilled staff continues, the number of disputes between Eskom and the various contractors continues to mount alarmingly and the expiry date of the operating licence draws closer.
  • Against this backdrop, analysts and activists have questioned the R21bn Eskom has provided for the project and are concerned that massive unreported costs overruns pose a substantial financial risk to Eskom and the Treasury.

A collaborative effort was made to compose a detailed report titled Submission on Koeberg Refurbishment which was sent to Treasury in early July 2023 by Lydia Petersen, a member of the Koeberg Alert Alliance and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI). To-date there has been no direct response or acknowledgment of receipt of the report from Treasury.

Background

Koeberg first produced power in 1984 and its 40 year operational licence comes to an end in July 2024. In 2010, the Eskom Board approved a project to refurbish the plant at a cost of R20bn in order to extend the plant’s lifespan by an additional twenty years. Actual refurbishment began in January 2022 when an attempt was made to replace the steam generators and do other work on unit 2 but this was subsequently aborted due to lack of preparation by Eskom. In May 2023, Eskom announced that unit 1 will undergo a long outage starting on 24 July 2024 and they have asked the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) for the operating licence for the plant be changed to include a later end of life date for unit 2. If successful, this would mean unit 1 reaches its end of life in 2024 and unit 2 in 2025.

One major component of Koeberg’s life extension or Long-Term Operation project (LTO) is replacing the six steam generators which began with French contractor Framatome in 2014. There is often confusion in the media between the steam generator replacement project (SGR) and the total life extension project, which includes the replacement of many other pieces of equipment as well as structural repairs. At great cost and with many blunders along the way, some of the new steam generators arrived in SA two years late in 2020.

Problems with the life extension have been ongoing. In 2016, Eskom suspended Koeberg’s general manager, Riedewaan Bakardien because he wrote a letter that was leaked stating that Koeberg will not be ready for a life extension refurbishment. Bakardien was reinstated, but subsequently resigned and emigrated to Canada in 2022.

Budget underestimation
Although 13 years have passed since Eskom’s 2010 budget for Koeberg’s refurbishment, Eskom has not provided the public with any updated cost estimate for the project, and officially the cost remains close to what it was in 2010.

In a 2022 presentation to parliament, Eskom admitted: “The original cost estimate of R20 billion was done in the 2010 parameter [sic]. If reassessed in today’s values, it would be significantly different.” However, later in December 2022 in response to a parliamentary question, Eskom declared that “the total cost associated with the activities needed to support the licence application for long-term operation is projected to amount to an estimated R21 billion”. It is not known if the Board has approved any updated cost figure since 2010.

The Report states: “To understand the long-term implications of the Koeberg life extension project, an accurate idea of the costs of the refurbishment must be determined. In 2010 the project was projected to cost R20bn, however, R20bn in 2010 cannot be R20bn in 2023.”

“A simple inflation adjustment calculation shows that between 2010 and 2022, SA’s inflation rose by about 88%, according to World Bank data. This would imply that R20bn in 2010 is at least R38bn in 2023 rands, assuming that nuclear power plant related costs rose in line with general consumer price inflation. However, given the significant foreign exchange rate related component of the LTO project work, these costs are likely to have risen faster than the general inflation rate as the Rand was R7,50 to the US Dollar in 2010.” This is opposed to R18,80 to the dollar today.

In the same 2022 presentation, Eskom indicated that there has been an extra cost of R1.5bn due to interest. In addition, there have been many financial claims from Framatome for delays in the life extension project caused by Eskom, including a single claim for R1.1bn, which was later adjudicated to R950m.

Time overruns

Initially Eskom announced that the refurbishment work would take five months for each of the two units. Work began on unit 1 on December 10 2022 and was originally scheduled to be completed in 180 days with the unit returning to service in June 2023. It was then reported in May that the planned completion date would be in August. In August Eskom announced that unit 1 is scheduled to return to service only in September, which was later changed to November – a full 5 months later than the initial estimate.

In addition, Eskom has stated that an additional 200 day outage is planned for unit 1 starting
in July 2024. If Eskom manages to stick to the planned schedule, unlikely as that is given the history, it would mean over seventeen months of work is needed to refurbish one unit. Similarly for unit 2, which was taken offline on 18 January 2022 for about eight months, and still requires the three steam generators to be replaced which will require another long-term outage.

The Report states: “It is inconceivable that work which was thought to require 5 months per unit will remain at about the same cost as work which turns out to take 15 months per unit. A 400 day job cannot cost the same as a 180 day job.” As the report was written before the recent updates from Eskom, the 15 month figure quoted is already too low and it appears that 18 months per unit is now more realistic.

Missing costs

In addition, there are various expenses that have been omitted and they can be classified into two categories: hidden costs and risk related costs.

Some of the hidden costs include a seismic hazard assessment (as required by the NNR due to the proximity of seismic fault lines) which will cost more than R200m, the Eskom Koeberg-Ankerlig 132kV transmission line project (also a safety requirement), other parts requiring replacement, an additional 20 years of high level waste which will have to be dealt with, and bailouts provided to the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA) which was created to promote nuclear technology and enable the initial construction of Koeberg.

Koberg spent fuel pool is located under the facility. Image credit: NNR

There are also costs which would only continue to be incurred if Koeberg’s life is extended or new nuclear plants are built, such as the nuclear division within the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy with its own Deputy Director-General and staff, Eskom’s Chief Nuclear Officer, and a post at Megawatt park.

As for risk related costs, it is well known that mega projects and nuclear power plant projects in particular are prone to both time and budget overruns. Eskom’s own most recent experience of Kusile and Medupi ended up costing more than double the initial projected figures. The Report states: “Given the particular complexity and nature of the refurbishment work being attempted at Koeberg, this means the costs could ultimately be somewhere between R80bn and R140bn.”

Load shedding – impact on economy

The Report highlights how extended outages of the units at Koeberg are resulting in an extra stage of load shedding at the height of the energy crisis. Using a cost of load shedding of R87/kWh (as per the CSIR), one month’s outage of one unit at Koeberg while the country is experiencing load shedding costs the economy approximately R52bn. If each unit is down for 15 months, which is now emerging as an optimistic figure, the decision to attempt the life extension has cost an eye watering R1,5 trillion in terms of cost to the economy. This is of course unless there is further slippage of dates, which given past performance is highly likely.

The Report states: “If we add up the load shedding cost to the economy of the Koeberg unit outages so far and include the anticipated upcoming outages according to Eskom, the total cost to the economy of the refurbishment will be at least R933bn. And these figures are likely to increase due to delays.” The lower figure in the Report is due to the fact it was written before the latest delay was announced by Eskom.

The Report asks: “Is the damage done by an extra stage of load shedding, due to the refurbishment outages, worth the benefit of having the plant’s life extended?”

The contribution of Koeberg to generation capacity and renewable costs

When both units of Koeberg are operating they produce about 1.85GW, which in 2022 constituted 3.5% of national nominal capacity according to the CSIR. Currently, SA is at times short of up to 8GW capacity. The presidency projects that collectively new projects and demand management are projected to add over 20GW by 2025 and, from Ministerial determinations alone, 28GW is planned to be online by 2030. This means the potential contribution of Koeberg is set to become less and less significant as the years go by.

A more recent presentation by Eskom in June 2023 on the Renewable Energy Grid Survey shows a contracted capacity of over 47GW coming online over the period 2023 to 2026. This is further evidence that the 2GW from Koeberg will be of little significance post 2025.

Furthermore, the costs of alternatives, in particular renewable energy, have fallen steadily since 2010, significantly affecting the validity of any cost benefit analysis supporting the original 2010 decision to apply for an extension of Koeberg’s working life.

On 19 August 2023, President Ramaphosa boldly announced that load shedding would be over ‘in 2024’. While this might be overly optimistic, it does show that government agrees that Koeberg is needed more now that it will be from 2025 on.

Risky business

At a recent event in Stellenbosch, former NNR CEO Prof. Bismark Tyobeka, stated that the Chairman of NECSA, David Nicholls, went to the United Arab Emirates to warn them that continuing to poach skilled nuclear people from South Africa is increasing the risk of a nuclear accident at Koeberg, and they would share the responsibility for that.

Media has reported widely about Koeberg staff “working day and night” and “around the clock” to bring unit 1 back online as soon as possible. The staff exodus over the past few years, including many lower level skilled staff as well as senior people such as Mahesh Valaitham, Riedewaan Bakardien, André de Ruyter and more recently Jan Oberholzer, combined with the recent demand schedule on the remaining staff makes immediate commencement of the unit outage a few days after they completed the work on unit 1 very risky in terms of human resources. The risk of human error becomes more likely in such a scenario.

Conclusion

The Report concludes: “The benefit of having Koeberg online from 2025 to 2045 needs to be balanced against the cost of the long-term outages necessary to do the life extension refurbishment. The additional 1.85GW that can be generated by Koeberg now, is far more valuable than the generation of the same MW in 2025. This is particularly the case should the project suffer from delays. With the current state of the coal fleet, any contribution from Koeberg would be a significantly higher percentage of national demand, if both units were allowed to operate.

“It is therefore highly questionable whether it is wise to continue with a project which has an unknown final cost and may not receive regulatory approval, as well as being set to contribute a relatively insignificant percentage of national supply capacity over the years of the life extension.

“While it is difficult to arrive at accurate figures given the lack of information from Eskom, it seems likely that there are alternatives that are cheaper than the Koeberg life extension project. Moreover, diverting whatever funds still to be spent on Koeberg into strategically strengthening the grid would have a greater long term benefit.

“In addition, the damage to the economy from the long term outage (with more than half of them still ahead as at the time of writing) while external to Eskom’s financials, are entirely unacceptable. Abandoning the refurbishment would not only reduce the extra load shedding resulting from the long outages still required, it would also make grid capacity available to new renewable energy projects and make the Koeberg site available for forward looking projects such as a utility scale battery installation. A thorough cost/benefit analysis is urgently required using actual up to date figures to inform such a decision.”

Source: Koeberg Alert Alliance

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