A small and innovative reactor is seen as the model for new electricity plants. The project is nearing the starting blocks.
Although nuclear power generation has by far the best safety and environmental record of any technology in general use, it has for many years been unable to make any meaningful inroads into the wall of negative perceptions that have arisen against it.
But sentiments are changing rapidly on a global scale. The flare-up of oil prices is a sobering reminder of the volatility in the energy market, the exhaustibility of fossil fuels and the urgent need for stable, reliable, non-polluting sources of electrical power that are indispensable to a modern industrial economy.
Today, new types of nuclear plants are prized, and South Africa is moving ahead. The State energy provider, Eskom, is internationally regarded as the leader in the field of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) technology, a "new generation" nuclear power plant.
A decision on the PBMR project's future is on the near horizon (see box, The PBMR Nears the Starting Blocks.) Should approvals be received in the coming months to proceed to the project's next phase, construction of the PBMR demonstration plant will start in 2006, in which case the reactor will start in 2010 and handed over to the client, Eskom, in 2011. Eskom has conditionally undertaken to purchase the first commercial units.
Pebble bed reactors are small, about one-sixth the size of most current nuclear plants. Multiple PBMRs can share a common control center and occupy an area of no more than three football fields.
More specifically, the PBMR is a helium-cooled, graphite-moderated high temperature reactor (HTR). The concept is based on experience in the UK, United States and particularly Germany where prototype reactors were operated successfully between the late 1960s and 1980s. Although it is not the only high-temperature, gas-cooled nuclear reactor being developed in the world, the South African project is internationally regarded as a frontrunner. The South African PBMR includes unique and patented technological innovations which make it particularly competitive.
Mr. Nic Terblanche, Chief Executive of PBMR (Pty) Ltd, says that the commercial reactors would be sized to produce about 165-MWe each. To maximise the sharing of support systems, the PBMR has been configured into a variety of options, such as an 8-pack layout. "This is the most cost effective layout and allows the modules to be brought on line as they are completed," he says.
The concept allows for additional modules to be added in accordance with demand and to be configured to the size required by the communities they serve. It can operate in isolation anywhere, provided that there is sufficient water for cooling. Dry cooling, although more expensive, is an option that would provide even more freedom of location.
South Africa's Eskom has two partners in the PBMR project, namely the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), and British Nuclear Fuels. The partners have all expressed a desire to proceed to the detailed design and construction phase. This phase involves construction of a demonstration reactor at Koeberg near Cape Town and an associated fuel plant at Pelindaba near Pretoria, where fuel for Koeberg used to be manufactured.
So far, the project's detailed feasibility study, basic design and business case have been completed and the project team is ready to move to the construction phase once the various approvals are received. Eskom is currently awaiting the final verdict on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) from the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) following an initial positive Record of Decision (RoD) on the EIA reports in June 2003. The DEAT found the project was, with some conditions, acceptable from an environmental impact point of view.
Subsequent to the positive RoD, interested and affected parties were granted two months to lodge appeals with the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. The appeal period ended in August 2003 and the Minister is currently reviewing the appeals.
In addition to the final verdict on the EIA and approval by the investors, proceeding to the next phase (building of a demonstration module and fuel plant), is still subject to the issuing of a construction license by the South African National Nuclear Regulator and approval by the South African Government.
The project seems to be strongly supported by President Thabo Mbeki and his government. In fact, a South African delegation led by the Department of Trade and Industry met with senior executives of Areva and Framatome in Paris earlier this year to negotiate possible French participation in the project. Areva is one of several international companies who have shown an interest in getting involved in the US $1.3 billion project.