U.S. Should Invest in South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR)

In September 2009, the CEO of PBMR Limited, Jaco Kriek, announced the postponement of the PBMR Demonstration Power Plant project due to lack of financing.[1] Today, the future of this Generation IV nuclear power plant is still very much up in the air. The South African government (SAG), who owns a majority stake in the PBMR plant, decided to suspend funds and review its entire energy portfolio. The primary reason given by the SAG is the economic recession, which is understandable, but the project began in 1999 and the SAG has already invested R7.5 billion (approx. $1billion) in funds. It appears that the SAG is forcing PBMR Limited to act more like a private sector company and pursue alternative sources of financing. The company is looking into strategic international partnerships and memorandums of understanding with local and international companies.[2]

It does appear a bit strange that the SAG decided to turn off the spigot when it is so close to capitalizing on its investment and solidifying itself as a major energy player in the coming decades. If successful, the plan projected to build 10 to 20 PBMR plants each year throughout the world, which would create an estimated 60,000 jobs and bring much needed investment to South Africa.[3]

PBMR technology falls into one of the six classes of nuclear reactors in the Generation IV initiative. PBMR is unique in the world of nuclear reactors because it produces a relatively small amount of energy; about 125 MW compared to traditional 1,000 MW nuclear reactors. Due to its smaller size, the capability to use the nuclear energy to produce both electricity and process heat, and its modular design makes this technology attractive to both traditional electricity suppliers, but also energy intensive industries.[4]

“The PBMR Power plant is a helium cooled, graphite-moderated High Temperature reactor.” Because the plant operates at higher temperatures, the amount of energy converted into electricity increases. Instead of rods, the particles of enriched uranium fuel are encased in graphite to create a sphere about the size of a tennis ball. 360,000 of these “pebbles” sit in the core of the reactor. Also, the safety requirements of the PBMR reactor are easier and less expensive compared to conventional reactors because the PBMR plants require fewer engineered systems, fewer backup systems, and a smaller exclusion area.[5]

Interestingly, the U.S. has had a continuous interest in the PBMR project since its inception. In November 2000, U.S.-based Exelon Energy announced a 12.5% interest but subsequently sold its share in 2002, citing a renewed effort to concentrate on its core business.[6] A couple of years later, Westinghouse Electric Company invested in the PBMR project through British Nuclear Fuels Limited, its parent at the time. In 2005, Toshiba purchased Westinghouse and continued support of the PBMR program. Also last September, Steven Chu, the U.S. Energy Secretary signed a bilateral nuclear energy research and cooperation agreement with South Africa. The PBMR project and the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (a U.S.-based imitative), both high temperature gas-cooled reactors, has been identified as a potential area for cooperation.[7] Also, Westinghouse has begun the pre-application phase to license and build PBMR plants in the United States.[8] Given the interest and investment that U.S. organizations have already invested, the U.S. government should consider providing the funds to ensure the continuation of the PBMR program. It is important for the U.S. to have a strong stake in the future of nuclear energy production.

[1] http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-PBMR_postponed-1109092.html

[2] http://www.busrep.co.za/index.php?fArticleId=5331707&fSectionId=552&fSetId=662

[3] http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/safr_nuke.html

[4] http://www.pbmr.co.za/index.asp?Content=182

[5] http://www.atomicinsights.com/AI_06-07-05.html

[6] http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/safr_nuke.html

[7] http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-USA_South_Africa_sign_R_and_D_agreement-1709097.html

[8] http://www.atomicinsights.com/AI_06-07-05.html



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3 responses to “U.S. Should Invest in South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR)

  1. Keep in mind that MW is a unit of power…

  2. juliaharvey

    A couple additional points to note regarding the PBMR:

    Because of the composition of the pebbles, these reactors require virtually no concrete containment vessel, as opposed to traditional PWRs. This stands as an economic and logistic advantage for their construction in more remote locations (no need to transport a giant vessel, or build it on site).

    Also, a benefit of the pebble configuration is that extracting the fission product, plutonium, for weapon-making purposes is much harder, since the fuel is contained within several layers that comprise each pebble. A disadvantage is that the reusable components (U-235, Pu-239) are much harder to remove from the fuel for recycling.

  3. mhapsari

    It will be interesting to further study the economic details of this project. A combination of a financially viable project and an opportunity to apply the technology globally as well as domestically should have made US investors standing in line to claim their stake in the project.

    From a financial perspective, past investments towards the project are sunk costs and project stakeholders should have reasonable justifications to invest further. The hurdles might lie somewhere in the commercialization and scale-ability of the technology.

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