Government drops final curtain on PBMR

20 September 2010

The government of South Africa has formally announced its decision no longer to invest in the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project.


The PBMR was to have been a small-scale high-temperature reactor using fuel spheres of silicon carbide-coated uranium particles encased in graphite, with helium as the coolant, able to supply process heat as well as generating electricity. The nature of the fuel in particular gives the reactor a high degree of passive safety, exploiting inherent safety characteristics depending on the physical properties of the system without the need for intervention. Based on well-proved German technology, South Africa has been working on the PBMR project since 1993, but earlier this year PBMR Pty announced the loss of government funding, along with drastic staff cuts. At that point the government had initially decided to downsize the company by 75%, which would have allowed it to operate for up to 3 years.
Addressing the country's National Assembly, public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan cited a number of "sobering realities" underlying the government's decision no longer to invest in the project. Among these were the project's failure to secure an anchor customer or other investment partner; the prospect of the requirement for further investment of at least another ZAR 30 billion ($4.2 billion); and the loss of the opportunity to participate in the USA's Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) program as part of a consortium with Westinghouse when Westinghouse withdrew from the conceptual design phase of the project in May 2010.
Other factors listed by the minister include the project's "consistently" missing deadlines, pushing back the construction of the first demonstration model. Coupled with this, any nuclear building program in South Africa in the near future would have to use Generation II or III reactor technology, and not PBMR, which is a Generation IV technology, the minister said. The final factor, the current economic downturn, has forced the government to reprioritise its spending obligations and "of necessity to make certain tough decisions. This being one of them."
Care and maintenance


Now the PBMR project is to be placed under 'care and maintenance' to protect its intellectual property and assets, for which several employees will be retained. However, the Fuel Development Laboratory, which is on Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) property, is to be decommissioned, and the Helium Test Facility, also on Necsa property, mothballed. The Heat Transfer Test Facility at Northwest University will also be mothballed unless the university wishes to continue to utilise it.
A nuclear skills development and retention program will be set up, and nuclear graduate programs at universities will be maintained and supported, the minister said.
Talking at some length about the PBMR project's development, Hogan said that the validity of the pebble bed technology itself was not in doubt. "Both the United States and China are actively engaged in further developing this technology, with South Africa earning a reputation as being at the cutting edge of these developments," she said. "This is a remarkable achievement for a developing country and something of which we are justifiably proud."
A total of ZAR 9.244 billion ($1.3 billion) has been invested in the PBMR project over the last decade, with over 80% (some ZAR 7.419 billion, $1.0 billion) coming from the South African government. Other funding had come from Eskom (8.8%), Westinghouse (4.9%), Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) (4.9%) and Exelon (1.1%).

Researched and written

by World Nuclear News