'Very concerned': Electricity minister escalates Koeberg's life extension delay to Eskom's board

‘Very concerned’: Electricity minister escalates Koeberg’s life extension delay to Eskom’s board

  • The Minister of Electricity, Kgosincho Ramukjuba, has expressed his displeasure over the delays in the Koeberg Life Extension project.
  • He will escalate the issue to the Eskom board of directors as he remains very concerned about the situation.
  • There is an increased risk of interference between delaying Unit 1’s return to service and Unit 2 going offline.
  • For more financial news, go to News24 Business front page.

Electricity Minister Kgocincho Ramukjuba has expressed anger at the delay in refurbishment of the Koeberg nuclear power plant, saying that even after his visit there last week he was “the wiser” about when Unit 1 will return to service and what is actually going on.

Speaking at a news conference on Sunday, Ramukjoba said he was “taking up” the matter with Eskom’s board of directors as he remains “very concerned about the situation at Koeberg” and deeply upset. Even after he received a “comprehensive presentation” from the factory project team, he didn’t have a clear picture of the situation.

He also warned that there was a “real risk” of an overlap between delaying the return of Unit 1 and “taking Unit 2 out” for refurbishment.

“If that happens, we’ll lose a total of 1,840 MW – two units that went out there at the same time. It’s something we’re trying to avoid and as I said I’ll be back because there were additional questions that weren’t answered when I met the team at Koeberg. So, I’m no wiser about our ability to get that unit back (Unit 1) as promised.”

Growing concern about Koeberg

Delays in the renovation of the Koeberg plant, SA’s only nuclear plant, have raised concerns that SA will see higher phases of unloading continue into 2024, News24 reported earlier this week. The plant is undergoing an extension of life, which includes the replacement of all steam generators in both Unit 1 and Unit 2 there. Each unit generates 920 MW, which is roughly equivalent to a load shedding stage. Koeberg’s license to continue operating expires on July 21, 2024 after which it must close unless the plant is successfully refurbished and grounded. Unit 1 was expected to be completed by July, with Unit 2 earmarked for outages in September. The deadline for Unit 1 has already been pushed back to September, with concern growing that it could be moved to October, leaving no safety barrier between returning to Unit 1 service and closing Unit 2.

Read | Risks, risks, risks. Seriously concerned about Koeberg’s troubled renovation business

Ramukjupa said nuclear technology is one of the “safest technologies in the world” but the longer renewal is delayed the greater the concern in the market that something “might be a safety concern”. He emphasized that he “didn’t want this novel to gain traction.”

Asked by energy analyst Chris Yland at the briefing whether the delays at Koeberg could lead to a forensic review, Ramokgopa said that if any forensic audit were to take place, the decision would have to be made by the Eskom board.

“In the event of significant failures to deliver on a project of this magnitude, real questions will be asked and they must be answered and if they are answered by an audit or a forensic investigation, it is not for me to determine, but for the board to make that decision.”

But he said the utilities and the government should “leave no stone unturned” in finding out the cause of all the problems, adding that “the sovereign interest of this country must be protected at all costs.”

To this end, if there are people who are “at fault” either within Eskom or the power plant or outside the organization, “we must go after them”.

We will not allow individuals to demand ransom from the state.”

Speaking to News24 afterwards, Yeland, who heads EE Business Intelligence, said it was clear the minister was “very concerned and really angry” about the performance of Eskom itself and the Koeberg Nuclear Life Extension project team.

He said that although the contractors were not mentioned specifically, this may have led to their extension as well.

“In the end, you can pass responsibility as much as you want, but Eskom project managers are accountable to the board of directors and the board is accountable to different ministers.”

“painted in the corner”

He said Ramukjupa did not mention the July 21, 2024 deadline when Eskom’s operating license will expire, adding that “the country is on the hook due to the ongoing delays in this life extension project.”

Weiland expressed concern that it was increasingly likely that Eskom would not meet that deadline, adding that either the national nuclear regulator would have to grant the facility some leniency for a license extension, or units would face “the prospect of being shut down.”

“This project started over 10 years ago. It was supposed to be completed in 2021 and before that it is now 2023 and they haven’t even finished replacing the steam generator in Unit 1, let alone Unit 2, which still needs to be done. This has to be done before the license expires.”

Ramukjoba has also been questioned by reporters about the potential fallout from a legal challenge from energy company G7 to overturn Eskom’s new network access rules. Both Ramukjuba and Presidential Official Rudi Dix, who was present at the briefing, expressed hope that the parties would find a solution out of court.

News24 reported over the weekend that there are major concerns that the G7 court case could deal a serious blow to Eskom’s plans to add more megawatts to the grid, because if its interception is successful, the allocation of network access to new projects will be frozen and projects in development will stall. In a two-part application filed with the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, the G7 first requested that Eskom be barred from enforcing the network’s rules on two grounds: that they were applied “illegally” because they were not approved by NERSA; and that they were used in a “short and impractical time frame”. In Part B of the application, the company asked the court to permanently set aside the rules because they were “fundamentally flawed.” Developers will be required to invest a significant amount of resources in setting up their projects and obtain a host of other regulatory approvals without ensuring that they gain access to the network.

Read | Legal threat to new energy projects while taking Eskom to court

Dix acknowledged that if the ban were to pass it would “create a problem for us”, adding: “What we need to do, of course, is see if we can find a solution out of court. That, of course, is our goal.”

Ramukjoba said the grid access rules are part of the government’s effort to speed up the start-up of renewable energy projects.

“I told the team that everything we can do should not be antagonizing the parties in this space. We will try, to the extent possible, to ensure that there is peace and harmony. I am convinced that everyone is committed to ensuring that we can solve the country’s energy challenges and also make sure that we are able to introduce new sources of generation especially from renewable energy sources.

“Of course there are court proceedings, and we will not get involved in that, and we have no intention of doing so, but we will do our best to ensure that we engage with the parties referred to as the G7 to see how best we can find a decision that first addresses the interest of the country without undermining the commercial and financial interests of renewable energy players.”

Meanwhile, Ramukjoba is scheduled to visit Grotvlei Power Station, one of the oldest power stations in Eskom, on Sunday afternoon to assess the site after a fire broke out over the weekend and put his Unit 2 out of commission. Before the fire unit 2 was the only one of the three units in the working station. It had a capacity of 190 megawatts. Initial reports were that the fire broke out in the early hours of Saturday after an oil leak developed in the boiler room.

read | Shooting at Grootvlei will not affect load shedding schedule – Eskom

In response to questions, he said the fire was “contained and extinguished” and that the team there did not expect a “long outage”.

He said they couldn’t say how long the unit would take to operate, but that the unit was much smaller than those found in the nation’s newest power plants.

However, he said “every megawatt is important in the context of the crisis we are facing, so we will do our best” to address the situation.

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