Pebble bedfellows

31 March 2009

Chinese and South African organisations working to develop high temperature reactor technology have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the aim of pushing forward pebble-fuelled technology.

The agreement signed by Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Pty (PBMR) of South Africa, the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology (INET) of Tsinghua University, and Chinergy Ltd at a ceremony in Beijing on 26 March covers cooperation on identified areas of common interest. Both countries are hoping to pursue collaboration in a number of strategic and technical areas relating to their respective high temperature reactor (HTR) projects. The new agreement follows on from a 2005 agreement between PBMR and Chinergy.

INET director Zhang Zouyi said that the MoU was the result of natural synergies between the two project teams, while PBMR CEO Jaco Kriek said the agreement would create "interesting opportunities" for the future commercialisation of the technology. "While the two projects have chosen slightly different technical approaches, we both fully believe that high temperature gas-cooled reactors using pebble fuel offer the best potential for sustainable, clean, reliable and safe sources of energy globally," he said.

Both countries' technologies use the same pebble fuel concept as a heat source but differ in how they plan to utilise it. INET's pebble bed concept is based on a 10 MWt research reactor that started up in 2000, while PBMR is working towards the construction of its first unit. The first planned Chinese commercial-scale plant, dubbed HTR-PM, features two 250 MWt reactor modules and a 210 MWe steam turbine generator set using an indirect cycle system. PBMR has been developing a direct cycle gas turbine system, but has also been looking at development of indirect cycle steam turbine systems in response to interest from the process heat and cogeneration markets.

The PBMR is also linked to the US Department of Energy's Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project through a range of research and development deals with backing from Westinghouse, the Shaw Group, and Sargent and Lundy as well as INET and PBMR Pty. PBMR Pty is remaining circumspect about when a demonstration reactor is likely to be built, despite earlier reports suggesting a construction start in 2010. The first fuel particles for the reactor were produced in South Africa earlier this year.