Clock is ticking for Koeberg nuclear fuel

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Eskom's Koeberg nuclear power station outside Cape Town. (Jay Caboz)
Eskom's Koeberg nuclear power station outside Cape Town. (Jay Caboz)
  • Government has until next year to secure a new pact with the US to allow nuclear fuel imports.
  • The pact expired last month, and the US then withdrew the licence of Koeberg's supplier. 
  • Eskom chief nuclear officer Keith Featherstone says it will take a long time to get a new nuclear fuel supplier.
  • For more financial news, go to the News24 Business front page.

Government has just over a year to secure a new pact with the US in order to import nuclear fuel for Koeberg power station.

A key licence to get the fuel was withdrawn after the Agreement for Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy between the US and South Africa expired on 4 December after 25 years.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission then withdrew Westinghouse Electric's licence to export components to Sweden that is needed for the manufacture of nuclear fuel that would eventually be used at Koeberg.

On Thursday, Eskom's chief nuclear officer Keith Featherstone said that there were currently enough nuclear fuel supplies in stock at Koeberg.

"The first time we will need fuel from Westinghouse, which they don't have authorisation to ship to us, is around mid-2024," said Featherstone.

This means that there is more than a year left for government to work with the US to re-establish the agreement.

There is also another option: as part of a non-proliferation agreement under the International Atomic Energy Association, Westinghouse can apply for permission to supply fuel to South Africa, on a once-off basis.

On Friday, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) said that there is "no immediate crisis", but that "an urgent resolution" is needed to allow Westinghouse to provide the fuel.

The DMRE said it had initiated negotiations for the conclusion of a new nuclear cooperation agreement with the US as far back as 2018. The DMRE is working with other government departments to expedite the talks.

Negotiations on a new agreement are ongoing and the parties have resolved to expedite the process...

"We are confident and strongly believe that there is commitment between the parties to conclude the new Nuclear Cooperation Agreement to ensure mutual economic benefit between the two countries."

Two suppliers

Eskom only has two qualified nuclear fuel suppliers - Westinghouse and French company Framatome.

Koeberg Unit 1 relies on fuel from Westinghouse, while Unit 2 relies on fuel from Framatome. Unit 1 is currently offline for refuelling and the replacement of its steam generators.

"For the outage we currently have [for Unit 1], the fuel that we need to reload when the outage is over is already onsite and ready to be loaded," said Featherstone. ''… We see no risk to any of the ongoing production of Koeberg as a result of the lapsing of the agreement," he added.

READ | Eskom COO job to be scrapped after Oberholzer retires

It would take a long time for Eskom to get the necessary approvals to qualify a new nuclear fuel supplier. For this reason, Eskom feels it would be better just to revive the agreement with the US for Westinghouse to continue to supply fuels, Featherstone said.

"To qualify a nuclear fuel supplier for Koeberg is a very long process. It takes quite a few years to get the fuel qualified," he said.

"… We would prefer to sort out the issue and get the fuel from Westinghouse if we can," Featherstone emphasised.

Eskom could potentially use the Framatome fuel for Unit 1 too. But the Framatome fuel will have to be combined with some of the Westinghouse fuel in Unit 1, and that requires testing.

Featherstone further explained that only a third of the fuel in a unit is replaced at every outage, which is why there would still be Westinghouse fuel left in Unit 1 to be combined with that of Framatome.

"We only replace a third of the core with new fuel in every outage – it would require a significant amount of studies to be performed to verify the mixed fuel - a Westinghouse and Framatome combination is safe," Featherstone said.

Eskom downgraded load shedding to Stage 4 on Thursday.

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