Success story of the Koeberg nuclear power plant

Koeberg nuclear power plant consists of two 900 MW pressurised water reactors and was constructed just north-west of Cape Town in 1984. It was constructed during the last of the good old days before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and therefore was constructed cheaply. Koeberg has been a great success story and has reliably supplied massive amounts of stable clean power to the South African economy.

The result was that the South African government made several attempts to replicate Koeberg’s success.

Subsequent failures

  • Nuclear I

​Unfortunately, government’s efforts to build follow-up nuclear plants fell afoul of the harsh regulatory environment that followed after the Chernobyl accident. The first attempt was called Nuclear I and would have consisted of several large pressurised water reactors. Unfortunately, the more stringent regulations resulted in the project being cancelled under Pres. Mbeki because its high construction cost would have meant that its power would have been much more expensive than coal power.

  • The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR)

​South Africa are then embarked on an ambitious project to design and build the world’s most sophisticated Pebble Bed reactor

Since this was a technological flagship project that would have placed South Africa on the high-tech map in a massive way, the project had great support from the then President Mbeki. Since this was a first-of-a-kind reactor there were many teething problems. Unfortunately, these resulted in massive budget and schedule overruns. So, when President Zuma took over, he cancelled the project which resulted in large job losses in the South African nuclear industry.

  • Pres. Zuma’s 9.6 GW nuclear new-build programme

After having cancelled the PBMR, President Zuma became enthusiastic about nuclear power and gave instructions that South Africa should embark on a massive new 9.6 GW nuclear build programme. However, there were suspicions of an inappropriate relationship between President Zuma and President Putin of Russia and that President Zuma wanted to give the construction tender to Russia without following all the correct tender procedures. The cost of new nuclear power plants also remained unacceptably high. So, when President Ramaphosa took over, he killed the programme in favour of wind, solar and gas power.

Fortunately there is a new future waiting for Nuclear power in South Africa, read below in the next section about the future plans of the South African Government. 

Current plans for 2,500 MW of new nuclear in the IRP

The 2019 Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity (IRP-2019) is the South African government’s blueprint for our electricity future. The plan is determined by a team of scientists who design sophisticated computer models that predict the future demand for electricity in South Africa, as well as the future costs for the different power plant types and the ability of each plant to supply power during each hour of each year, e.g. it takes into account that solar power will only be available during the day when the sun will be shining and that there thus need to be another power source for the evenings, etc. This model then estimates the optimal combination of different power plant types that will supply South Africa’s future power demands the lowest cost. Since the cost of new solar power, wind power, gas power and power storage has dropped dramatically, this model now predicts that a combination of wind, solar gas and storage will supply cheaper electricity than new nuclear power and therefore the model recommends that South Africa should not build new nuclear plants in the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, the IRP model does not take strategic issues into account: South Africa currently does not produce sufficient natural gas for its own use. Therefore we will have to import most of the gas, either via a pipeline from gas fields in Mozambique or by ship in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) which will then have to be changed from liquid to gas once it arrives in South Africa. This will make South Africa dependent on other countries for its electricity needs, which could put us in a dangerous situation. For instance, if the terrorist war in Mozambique were to flame up and the gas pipeline were to be blown up, South Africa would be without gas and thus without sufficient power, which could lead to economic disaster. Therefore government instructed that the results of the IRP should be adjusted according to the energy policies of South Africa. On top of the strategic risk of importing so much gas, South Africa will lose its strategic capability of producing nuclear power when Koeberg closes down in about 20 years. Therefore, government instructed that 2500 MW of new nuclear power plant capacity should be inserted in the IRP plan. This will most likely be small modular reactors, as opposed to the very large plants, such as Koeberg. Small modular plants have many benefits over large plants. 

One problem with large plants is that they really produce massive amounts of power. So, if you plan a large plant and you build it, but you overestimated the growth in demand and there is not sufficient demand for that power, your new massive plant will create an oversupply for several years to come. Large plants are also massively expensive, so if the project goes wrong it would place a massive debt load on Eskom and thus on South Africa. With small modular plants, you build five small plants to do the job of one big one. So, if you overestimate the demand and you build the first new small plants too early, the oversupply you will create will be five times smaller, which should not be a big problem. You can then just hold off a bit on building your number two plant. Also if the construction fails, the financial loss is five times smaller, which should be bearable. If you make a crucial error in building your first plant, you can correct the mistake and do it right from the second plant… So, all in all, building many small plants is a much lower risk plan than building a few massive ones.

Because of these benefits, a large number of companies are currently busy developing small modular reactors. It remains to be seen which of these companies will win this race. However, it is notable that the American government just awarded $23 billion to NuScale to come and build their first demonstration plant for their small modular reactor in South Africa. Obviously, NuScale will first have to win the South African tender before they can do so, but this seems like a very positive development.

Unfortunately, the South African government has not yet budgeted the funds and the tenders have not yet been sent out. So, there is still a risk that this construction plan can be cancelled or postponed. However, the current plan seems much better and much more realistic than the previous plans that failed, so there is a good possibility that it might succeed, in which case it will create large amounts of good jobs in the South African nuclear industry. So there are positive prospects for our students.

Read more about the Government's decision to release its plans to build 2,500 MW new nuclear power plant capacity for public comment.