The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) says it is working with other departments to expedite negotiations on a new nuclear cooperation agreement with the US, following the expiry of a previous agreement, with implications for the supply of nuclear fuel to Eskom’s Koeberg power station.
The Nuclear Cooperation Agreement on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy was signed between South Africa and the US in 1995 and came into effect on December 4, 1997, for a period of 25 years. The agreement, thus, lapsed on December 4, 2022.
America’s National Regulatory Commission subsequently informed Westinghouse that it had withdrawn its authorisation to supply Koeberg with nuclear fuel.
Koeberg uses Westinghouse fuel, which is manufactured in Sweden with inputs from the US, in its Unit 1 reactor, while fuel sourced from Framatome of France is used to load Unit 2.
Eskom chief nuclear officer Keith Featherstone has indicated that the Westinghouse fuel required for the current Unit 1 outage, which began in December and has been extended to incorporate the replacement of the unit’s three steam generators, is on site for use when the unit returns to service. The outage is expected to continue until early June.
The fuel for the Unit 2 outage, which is scheduled to begin in October, and which will also be extended for the much-delayed replacement of its steam generators, is not yet on site, but is being manufactured by Framatome and is expected to be delivered by May.
However, Eskom will need to secure additional fuel for Unit 1’s mid-2024 refueling and is, thus, considering various options in light of the previous US authorisation having been withdrawn.
Featherstone says Eskom’s preference is to continue with it two-vendor strategy and for Westinghouse to continue to supply fuel for Unit 1, as the process involved in qualifying a new fuel supplier is a long and involved one.
In addition, while Framatome fuel can be loaded into Unit 1 it is not the preferred option, as only one-third of the core is loaded with new fuel during a refueling outage and significant testing would need to be undertaken to verify that a “mixed core” combination is safe to operate.
“It can be done and it’s a lot simpler than bringing in a new fuel supplier . . . but we would prefer to sort out the issue and get the fuel from Westinghouse if we can,” Featherstone explains.
The DMRE claims to have initiated negotiations for the conclusion of a new standardised Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the US in 2018 and reports that both countries have resolved to expedite the process, while engaging on measures to ensure continuity of cooperation during the negotiations.
While denying any immediate supply crisis, the department acknowledged that “urgent resolution is needed to allow Westinghouse Electric Company to provide fuel supply”.
“The DMRE is working with other government departments to expedite the negotiations of the new Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the USA.
“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.”
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