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Nuclear, good engineering and corruption

IF you take the West Coast road from Cape Town to Saldanha Bay, you might be slowed down by a huge trailer carrying a massive cylindrical thing 20 metres long and weighing 380 tons. This is a steam generator for the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station. It is an excellent piece of engineering that will give Koeberg at least 20 years’ more clean, safe, cheap, and reliable operation. It is unfortunately mired in controversy and corruption.

Koeberg uses PWRs (Pressurised Water Reactors), by far the most widely used around the world, with an excellent record of safety and reliability. The reactor is immersed in water at high pressure (150 bar). It heats the water to about 320⁰C. The hot water is pumped to three heat exchangers, known as steam generators (SGs), where incoming feedwater is turned into steam. The steam drives the turbine, which turns the generator, which makes electricity. The steam from Koeberg is at low temperature (about 280⁰C) compared with the steam in coal stations (about 550⁰C). This gives Koeberg lower thermal efficiency but longer life.

Steam generators, which provide an extra radiation barrier, were in the early days regarded as the achilles heel of PWRs. This is because some developed stress-corrosion cracking at the tube sheets, which caused leaking. With better materials, modern SGs avoid this. Worldwide, there was a programme to replace the old SGs with new ones. Koeberg’s SGs have performed remarkably well and don’t need replacing for a long time. But to meet best practice, it was decided to replace them anyway.

Major operation

SG replacement is a major operation but a routine one. It may be compared with a hip replacement operation. Koeberg has two units, each with three SGs. Replacing all six would cost about R5 billion. In 2010, Eskom put out tenders to Westinghouse and Areva. Westinghouse is the US company that pioneered PWRs from the start of the nuclear era. In recent decades, however, Westinghouse has much reduced its operations and is now Japanese-owned. Areva is a French company, formerly called Framatome. It modified Westinghouse designs, and built a series of successful nuclear stations in France, which today provide 75% of French electricity. It also built Koeberg, which has run successfully since 1984. However, there was a long pause in reactor building, during which Areva lost experience and expertise. The building of its new EPR reactors in Finland and France has gone badly.

Westinghouse and Areva submitted their tenders in 2010. Eskom technical committees examined them and found Westinghouse better in every way: cheaper, technically superior and offering better support to Koeberg. It was unanimous: Westinghouse would get most of the bid. In April 2011, Eskom signed the contract. Celebrations began at Westinghouse. Then, suddenly, Malusi Gigaba, Minister of Public Enterprises, refused to sign off administrative approval, regarded as a formality. He gave no good reason. The deal was off.

Then followed years of controversy and court action. Eskom went out to tender again, and Westinghouse looked best, but Areva won the bid. There was an appeal by Westinghouse, rejected by the lower court, upheld by the Supreme Court, and finally suspended by the Constitutional Court on the ridiculous grounds that the appeal came from Westinghouse Belgium rather than Westinghouse USA.

Made hurriedly and badly

Eventually Areva won the contract to replace the SGs and immediately proved its incompetence to do so. Its SGs were to be assembled in China, using some French forgings. The forgings were made hurriedly and badly, and then flown from France to China, where they failed quality control and had to be scrapped. This gave rise to the phrase ‘the most expensive transport of scrap metal in the history of humankind’. They were made instead by the excellent Japanese Steel Works. Finally, ten years later, the new SGs are being delivered to Koeberg for installation next year. They have been rigorously tested and are good – at last.

What a horrible expensive mess! The whole affair stinks of corruption, although nobody is quite sure who has bribed whom. Areva’s reputation has been badly damaged. Gigaba has been implicated in corrupt acts in other places and has been before the Zondo Commission. At the time, Eskom was in the thick of state capture, with characters like Matshila Koko, Zola Tsotsi and Collin Matjila holding powerful offices. I wonder why none of the SG scandal has been heard by the Zondo Commission.

Opponents of nuclear power are delighted to link nuclear and corruption. In this instance, they have a point. But the ANC is innately corrupt, and has looted and wrecked nearly every undertaking of the state, including electricity, railways, airways, hospitals and municipalities.

Actually, nuclear is more difficult to corrupt than coal or other means of generating electricity. This is because only proven reactor designs are allowed, and because international regulation imposes discipline upon all nuclear operations. But I’m afraid there are still some opportunities for nuclear corruption, which Zuma probably sought and which the SG conspirators probably found.

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