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KUSILE POWER STATION (July 2016)
Preamble: – I have developed an interest in Nuclear Energy for South Africa. It appears from the general tone of publications put out by Eskom that their intentions are not to even think about Nuclear Power until either, or both Kusile, and or Medupi are operational, or at least the completion is in sight. This is despite the South African Government having stated their commitment to Nuclear Energy for the last 31/2 years. However, Eskom have been as quiet as a leopard’s shadow, with regard to Kusile since early 2015. Construction on Kusile started early in 2008. More than 8 years ago, with a construction period of 4 to 5 years envisaged at the time. Never mind the cost estimates at the time. So what is causing this enormous delay?
My first thoughts on the matter revolved around poor quality labour. Having been involved with biggish construction projects in the past I recalled the old practice of recruiting at the site gate, and handing over the newly recruited gang to the foreman. Doing everything over again, was pretty much the norm. I was pleased to find this practise (hiring at the gate) is no longer in operation. A fairly formal recruitment procedure is observed. A quick look at google earth did not reveal any construction village, or hostels in the vicinity of Kusile’s construction site. So where does the (what must be a considerable workforce) come from. My guess was the surrounding towns.
First stop was Bronkhorstspruit, where inquiries quickly revealed two fairly smart looking blocks of flats (there could be others) for the married people working at Kusile, and at least one hostel (right next to the High School) for the single men. This hostel looked clean and tidy, with a prominent RULES SIGN at the gate. No booze, no women etc. The guards told me the rules were strictly enforced. Buses collected employees from here in the mornings around 05h30, and returned them around 17h45 to 18h00. Sometimes there was night shifts. The staff of a security company housed opposite one of the blocks of flats (in Gen Louis Botha Street) informed me that it is the same bus arrangement for the employees living in the flats – except some of them have, and use, private cars. The two white and one black security men added “That is when they are not on strike”. Oh, and how often is that? Well about 2 or 3 times a year, for as long as either of them could remember – Interesting. This Security Company, just happens to be in the same street, but has no dealings with the flats. They told me there are similar set-ups in Witbank and Wilge.
From the flats to Kusile’s North Gate is 35 km on the N4 freeway – no tolls on this section. At the “T” intersection leading to the main north gate, at 12 noon, there was a hive of activity. At least a dozen food shacks, a temporary car sale yard – selling mainly Mini Buses – Even two young ladies selling Avbob Funeral Insurance. It appeared to be a general “Lunch Hour” meeting place.
Next step was to undertake a photographing,counting, and talking tour of the Kusile Site. The number of private cars, Mini Buses, and 48 seater buses parked in the site was staggering. After all the site is 5 km across, in a NE / SW direction. I decided to make an estimate, because no one so far knew how many people work here. I counted the cars in what appeared to be the biggest carpark (455 in number), and extrapolated from that base to the many other car parks I could see – arrived at 1 500 private cars.
Then the Mini Buses – I arrived at 500. The Forty Eight seater buses, I was told come from elsewhere at finish time, although some were parked inside the site or outside near the gates. OK, I could count all the buses separately when leaving site at works end. Some of those 48 seaters parked at site, had their drivers in situ. Those that I talked to said their destinations included Delmas, Bronkhorstspruit, Wilge and Witbank – even Johannesburg. Interestingly, the bus drivers said they were forbidden to talk to strangers, but one black lady driver said she would talk to me if I introduced myself or had a writer’s business card – so, I introduced myself – the others joined in. Similarly with the carpark guards who had said I need permission to count cars – strange. I obliged, and introduced myself. I asked them how many cars they thought they were looking after in this carpark (after my count), they guessed 100. The workforce numbers was taking shape. I will come back to the numbers.
Now to construction progress. I went wherever I could within the perimeter, but was stopped often, and asked for my access card, which I did not have of course. I took photographs semi-surreptitiously. What was significant to me was the tons and tons of material still laying around in the lay-down areas, and outside the prefabrication workshops. Murray & Roberts’ and GE’s facilities being typical examples. The piping yards, and the huge duct components still to be installed, all looked bigger, and more plentiful than what was already installed, and in place. But I suppose these assembles had to fit in there somewhere. Just by looking, I would say more than half the components to be installed, were still laying in their yards, and / or still to be fabricated in their workshops.
Looking at the main plant itself. Of the six units, one (on the west end) appears to be complete, at least the outer cladding is in place, and the top crane has been removed. Also unit one’s adjacent condenser complex appears complete on the same basis, that is, the cranes have been removed, and the cladding is in place. Of course I could not see what is going on inside the outer cladding, so I will give it 90% complete. Accordingly number 2 is 80%, number 3 is 70%, number 4 is 60%, number 5 is 50% and number 6 is 40%.
We can say the average is 65% complete. Not much for 8 years work is it. Of course the smokestacks / chimneys are up, and I presume all of the above are built on fully completed foundations. This will certainly add to the percentage of cost already spent (mass concrete and embedded steel), but I am not sure about the time consumed. But the tonnage of components laying around, and yet to be installed could pull that back to 65%, in terms of time.
Around the perimeter, I could not help but notice there is a voltitude (my word meaning a lot of power lines) of High Tension transmission lines heading off in all directions, as far as the eye can see. But to counter this there is no sign of any incoming conveyor lines. I neglected to notice any transformer yard – complete or otherwise. To counter this, the Coal Handling equipment to the south of the plant is well under way. At a wild guess 80% complete.
Of concern, is a few hundred meters of thick, heavily reinforced concrete road, still under construction to the south of the plant. To me this means there is still some super heavy equipment yet to come into the Kusile site, what could it be?
Getting back to the labour force. I decided to monitor the North Gate. Knock off time was set at 17h00, but I could see that would be a logjam, and suspected the actual go-home time would be staggered among the different contractors – this proved to be the case. I was at the North Gate (actually two gates) at 16h15, and departure had already started, but reached a peak between 16h30 & 17h15. It required 3 Traffic Officers to co-ordinate the merge from the two gates, and outside carpark, and an additional officer at the “T” intersection to the main road 300 meters away. It was an endless, bumper to bumper stream until just on 18h00.
All the workers had, what had to be, standard issue blue overalls with yellow reflective stripes. Most were black men, with a few black ladies. There was more than a sprinkling of white tradesmen and tradeswomen types. All of them appeared to be healthy, in good spirits, and well looked after, as they made their way to their respective cars, mini buses, and 48 seaters.
Now, I had estimated 1 500 private cars, and now observed 2, 5 occupants per car. I asked mini bus drivers how many passengers they had, and their destination. The answers were from 9 to 19, the destinations were to Bronkhorstspruit, Wilge and Witbank. Remember this is from the North Gate, there is also a South Gate. I determined the mini bus average to be more like 12 passengers. I counted 50 of the 48 seaters from both North Gates, and the bus stop area.
Just before 18h00 the traffic flow died down enough to relieve the Traffic officers (who were actually part of the site security set-up), and they came to chat. They indicated to me that the South Gate operated under the same timing, and intensity, with maybe a few more buses, and slightly less private cars. Let us then say 60 buses. That now leaves us with 1 500 cars @ 2, 5 people per car = 3 750. 500 mini buses @ 12 per vehicle = 6 000. And 110 buses @ 40 per bus = 4 400. A workforce of 14 150 (Give or take a thousand or two, I suppose) in and out every day. Official site hours are from 07h00 to 17h00. I asked about the mornings – exactly the same, but from 06h00 to 08h00. I did not ask about weekends or night shifts.
What about when workers are on strike (guessing a bit), “well we get it a bit easier then”, but are still on duty because security personnel are, by contractual agreement, forbidden to strike. How often are the strikes? Well 2 or 3 times a year, for as long as we can remember. How long are the strikes? A few days, I suggested. No, sometimes up to a month. At this point the traffic officers were keen to catch their own transport home. One to Witbank, one to Bronkhorstspruit. It was now dark, and I was also keen to head home.
In summary: – The objective was to determine the extent of the time over-run, the reasons for the delays, and to a lesser degree the cost over-runs. The two factors, of course, are loosely connected. Lost time is always more money. It is easy to see in the case of Kusile, that even if work stopped, and wages stopped, a lot of the associated costs – such as accommodation – would continue. In the case of strikes, there is always a running down period, and a start-up again period. And there has been strikes for various reasons – For example:- Objection to foreign workers (welders / boilermakers). End of contract blues (major concrete foundations complete). Interruptions to cash flow (non payment of wages and contractors).
Although the workforce is huge, the site does not seem over-crowded, or people getting in each other’s way. The workforce itself is well catered for in terms of accommodation, transport, safety and clothing. There is also a canteen on site. They appear to be well looked after, and in good spirits. There does not seem to be any resentment (now) to the white foreign tradesmen working on site. The travelling time, to and from site, is long and relentless, and I can not help thinking it would cut into the work-time to some degree. Providing their salaries / wages are appropriate, they have very little to be unhappy about. I do not think the labour force can be entirely blamed for the construction time overruns.
The site itself appears to be neat and tidy, with a slow, but steady stream of equipment being collected from the various lay-down areas, and prefab shops, and taken to the plant proper. Maybe a bit too slow. I can not say if it has always been this way. On the face of it, it is hard to say what has been the reasons for the huge construction time overrun. Perhaps it was just poor estimating in the first place. But this should not be, Eskom, and their contractors have had many decades of experience in building coal fired power stations. Granted, Kusile is incorporating the new (For South Africa, but well understood in coal fired power stations around the world) Flue-Gas Desulphurisation (FGD) design. However this FGD was not incorporated in Medupi (Kusile’s older sister) so it was a first for Eskom at Kusile. The FDGs are situated just outside the stacks, and I suspect they did cause considerable confusion and delays (months, not years).
With respect to the construction delays: –
During an inspection around the perimeter of Kusile Power Station, I noticed (conspicuous by its absence), there was no sign of any coal feed conveyor going to any coal mine, from any direction – strange. This led me to believe that a source of coal had not yet been decided upon, and therefore any proposed conveyor would not know where to go (or come from).
I know from experience that conveyors, like roads, and railway lines, need to cut across lands belonging to others, and all sorts of cadastral servitudes / right-of ways, need to be negotiated, surveyed, and registered, before construction can begin. This is assuming one already knows the route and destination. There is no obvious evidence of this. Then there is the construction time. Depending where it is going, distance, and the terrain it needs to traverse, I would guess (based on some experience) at about two years. The same time and effort would apply to railway lines. And like everything else, it is the starting time that counts.
Then about 8km further south from Kusile, I noticed an operating colliery with 40 (counted) inter-link, side dump, road trucks, waiting to be loaded. One truck was just leaving. I waited 7 minutes, until the next truck was leaving. These trucks were heading south in the direction of Kendal.
It struck me that perhaps Kusile intended to use trucks to bring in coal (from wherever) to their main stockpile area adjacent to the site’s coal handling facility – strange. I stopped the next truck, and asked what was his tonnage, and destination. 38 tons, and a destination I did not catch. OK, let me see now. Energy in, equals energy out. Kusile boasts 6 x 800 MW. 800 MW out would need 800 MW in. According to the tables that would equate to 350 to 400 tons of coal per hour. Let’s call it 375 tons per hour for each of Kusile’s 6 units. That would be 2 250 tons per hour total. Each truck has 38 tons on board = 59 trucks per hour – near enough one truck per minute. Nah, that can not be right – or can it?? If they travelled 60kph, there would be one truck every kilometre, there and back, (Wherever there may turn out to be). I do not think the roads in the surrounding area can cope with that. I did witness some trucks bringing coal into the plan – maybe 15 to 20 per day. Could the reinforced concrete road (under construction) I mentioned earlier be meant to accommodate this traffic ?? I am not discounting a railroad, but see no evidence of such an undertaking. One good thing – there is plenty of coal in the vicinity !!!
Further perimeter inspection presented no sign of any major water pipe line coming into the site from anywhere. But, of course there must be a significant source for general construction water throughout the site. The obvious source of water would be from Bronkhorstspruit Dam. 23 km away as the crow flies. This would not be a huge undertaking, but again it is the starting time that counts.
Readers may be curious as to the conspicuous absence of the usually innocuous Cooling Towers, associated with coal fired power stations. I was too. Then I realized that the modern method is to use fanned radiators. Kendal power station is sporting cooling towers, but radiators have been installed in the cooling towers. Probably to make use of the natural draft. Matimba has no cooling towers. Medupi (Kusile’s older sister) will be fanned radiator cooled. I know there were construction delays with these fan-cooled radiators at Medupi – so the lessons should have been learned, but who knows ?? This may be a water saving process, but it requires heavy mechanical input and maintenance.
To re-summarize again: – The Workforce appears to be doing reasonably well, and could only be blamed for minor industrial delays – some of those delays were caused by circumstances out of the workforce’s control. Such as hiccups in finance and cash flow.
The many Contractors seem to be working with energetic competence, but can only work according to the plans they are given, and instructions they receive from their client. Although there has been cases of individual contractor’s incompetence and poor workmanship.
That leaves the Client & Site Management. From the planning stage, through ongoing site management, materials testing, and general poor quality decisions, especially with the testing and handling of new generation equipment, such as the fan-cooled radiator cooling systems, and the Flue-Gas Desulphurisation installation. I suspect the Client, and Site Management could have done much better. After all there are cases overseas where similar projects were up and running within a 4 to 5 year construction period.
Using my own observations and mathematical deductions. To all appearances kusile is 65% complete with still some uncertainties. But with all things considered, I will stick with that. Now 65% completed over a construction period of 8, 25 years, extrapolates to a total construction period of 12, 7 years. That leaves another 4, 45 years of construction work yet ahead of Kusile. To play it safe, let us say 5 years. My guess is kusile will not be completely up and running before mid 2021.
Oh well, I wonder where that leaves Nuclear Energy in South Africa.
—–RIDE HARD, SHOOT STRAIGHT, AND SPEAK THE TRUTH. ——-