President Jacob Zuma, joined by Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown and Eskom acting CE Brian Molefe, centre, officially opens the Medupi power station’s unit 6 on Sunday. Picture: Department of Communication
President Jacob Zuma, joined by Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown and Eskom acting CE Brian Molefe, centre, officially opens the Medupi power station’s unit 6 on Sunday. Picture: Department of Communication

A COSTING study on nuclear power has been submitted to the Cabinet for a decision on the size, model and cost of new-generation infrastructure to be built by the government.

This is according to Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, who denied on Sunday that the government has taken a decision to build 9,600MW of nuclear generation infrastructure.

"We never said we’d build 9,600MW of nuclear. We never said what the model would be," Ms Joemat-Pettersson said on the sidelines of an event marking the commercial launch of Medupi power station’s unit 6 in Limpopo.

"Anyone who says we will build 9,600MW of nuclear stations is thumb-sucking; anyone who says they know the model we’ll follow is thumb-sucking. We never said we’ll build it all in one go," she said.

President Jacob Zuma announced that the government would build 9600MW of nuclear generation capacity in his state of the nation address.

Eskom is currently building 10,300MW in three coal-fired power stations — including Medupi, Kusile and Ingula.

The proposed construction of the nuclear stations has become controversial after the government pressed ahead with plans to build the infrastructure, despite a slower economy and lower demand for power. Critics of the nuclear plan argue that demand for electricity has dropped to levels below what was envisaged when the energy plan was approved in 2007.

The Treasury has also been sidelined in costing for the project, raising questions about the affordability of the infrastructure.

The plan to build nuclear power stations supplying 9,600MW was first approved in the Integrated Resource Plan of 2010, but SA’s economic growth had dropped to about 1% a year by last year. It contracted 1.3% quarter on quarter in the second quarter of this year.

Ms Joemat-Pettersson said in May that the government would begin its nuclear procurement last month and was likely to have a successful bidder by December.

The government has signed numerous co-operation agreements with international companies vying to win the infrastructure. Russia’s Rosatom is regarded as a favourite to win the tender.

Companies ranging from Japanese-US contractor Westinghouse to France’s Areva as well as Chinese and Korean firms have also been in talks with the government.

"I do not know what the cost of the infrastructure will be," said Ms Joemat-Pettersson. "Cabinet will decide that."

Medupi’s unit 6 came on stream in March and its commercial launch was held amid fanfare in sweltering Lephalale on Sunday.

The first unit was initially expected to begin producing in August 2011, but a series of delays and cost escalations have prevented this.

On August 7 2007, then Eskom CE Jacob Maroga turned the sod that kicked off the building, promising a R70bn infrastructure project. Since then, the cost has ballooned to more than R105bn.

Acting Eskom CEO Brian Molefe on Sunday said that the focus in future would be on ensuring that the parastatal kept to its timelines in getting unit 5 onto the grid — this step is scheduled for the first quarter of 2017.

A major challenge, according to construction managers, who gave journalists a tour of the site on Sunday, was the rolling back of construction staff as the units’ generation of power kicked in. Workers would have to be let go as the project neared completion.

At its peak, the project employed about 18,000 people. That number has since dropped to 14,000 and is expected to decrease even further, a process that will have to be carefully managed.

As the units were completed, labour would be scaled back, but most employees would be leaving Medupi with additional skills.

"It is better to leave as an artisan than the situation before, when workers were unemployable," Mr Molefe said.

The last unit at Medupi is expected to be completed by 2019 and commercialised early the following year.