PBMR facing massive cuts

18 February 2010

South Africa has stopped funding the development of the pebble bed modular reactor, leaving the project company looking at 75% cuts in staff.


A statement from the company said "directors are contemplating a large-scale restructuring" to "reduce costs and extend the operating life of the company."


"This will potentially involve a significant reduction of approximately 75% of the employee complement, which currently comprises more than 800 people."


PBMR Pty is owned by Eskom, the South African state's power company, which has long struggled to meet growing demand for power in the country. Plans made for a mass order of pressurized water reactors in early 2008 were put on hold, and then came the global recession. The Department of Public Enterprises that funds Eskom was not answering calls to confirm the details of its decision.


Reactor concept for sale


PBMR said the resources currently available would not sustain the current structure and the future depends on discussions with existing investors "to determine their conditions for further investments."


Reactor vendor, technology and fuel company Westinghouse has a minority stake in the demonstration plant PBMR had hoped to build, but this project effectively halted some months ago. There has also been cooperation for several years with Tsinghua University scientists working on a similar high-temperature reactor concept for China.


PBMR's most recent connection was with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which signed a memorandum of understanding for collaboration in the development of the PBMR technology.


The PBMR design draws on long proven German technology and has been under development in South Africa since the early 1990s. It is a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTR) which uses fuel spheres of silicon carbide-coated uranium particles encased in graphite, with helium as the coolant. This 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. The ability to produce hot steam at 750°C means the PBMR can supply process heat as well as generating electricity, and its small size makes it particularly suited to applications in areas lacking a fully developed transmission grid.
Much work took place on a 400 MWt (165 MWe) reactor using a full-scale Brayton cycle gas turbine, but in 2009 PBMR Pty decided to focus on a 200 MWt (80 MWe) design using a conventional Rankine cycle enabling it to produce steam and to generate electricity.


According to MHI executive vice-president and general manager of nuclear energy systems Akira Sawa, the possibility of going back to the original plan should not be dismissed. "The possibility that PBMR may in future still want to pursue the direct cycle, gas-turbine design, should not be ruled out," he said, noting the future potential uses stemming from the higher output temperatures achievable from such reactor systems.


Researched and written
by World Nuclear News