Meltdown for home-grown PBMR nuclear initiative

16 September 2010 - 18:25 By Brendan Boyle - PoliticsLIVE

The pebble bed pocket reactor was supposed to be the answer to South Africa's power challenge and a money-spinner across the continent, but it's all over now.

The government has finally abandoned its R9.2-billion effort to develop and manufacture pocket nuclear power stations that would be safe enough to scatter across the country and simple enough to sell to African neighbours without this country's technical skills.

"If there had been any other viable option, we would have considered it," Barbara Hogan, the minister of public enterprises, told parliament.

She said the history of the project, which began 10 years ago, would be audited to see what lessons could be learned from what critics call the country's most expensive white elephant.

"All I can say today is vindication, vindication, vindication," said Independent Democrats MP Lance Greyling, who consistently campaigns for a green response to the country's power challenge.

"For six years in this House I have been objecting every year to the absurd amounts of money that the government has seen fit to throw the way of the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR)," he said.

Pieter van Dalen of the Democratic Alliance said the project could be regarded as "fruitless and wasteful expenditure".

Hogan said the decision was based on the following considerations.

* The PBMR has not been able to secure an anchor customer or an investment partner;

* The project would have needed further investment possibly in excess of an a R30-billion;

* The project has been consistently missing deadlines, with the construction of the first demonstration model delayed further and further into the future;

* The opportunity afforded to PBMR to participate in the US’s Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) programme as part of the Westinghouse consortium was lost in May this year when Westinghouse withdrew from the programme;

* Should South Africa embark on a nuclear build programme in the near future, it will not be using Pebble Bed Technology, which is a technologies still primarily in the research and design phase, but would have to consider well tested options; and

* Finally, the severity of the current economic downturn, and the strains that it has placed on the fiscus, as well as the nature and scale of government’s current developmental priorities, have forced the government to reprioritise its spending obligations and therefore, of necessity, to make certain tough decisions.

Hogan said the PBMR company already had reduced its staff to a quarter and scaled back on research and development after it became clear that there would be no early client for the project.

But with the withdrawal of the US partner, the cabinet resolved this week to wind up the programme, keeping only a few hand picked staff to guard the intellectual property built up during research into the idea.

Hogan said the government had poured more than R7-billion into the experiment with the rest coming from the Industrial Development Corporation, Eskom and Westinghouse.

Former minister of public enterprises Alec Erwin was an enthusiastic proponent of the technology.

He said while he was in office that he expected Eskom to buy at least 24 of the reactors.

Dozens more would be sold across Africa, where they could be easily installed and safely run.

The pebble bed technology, which is also being researched in the US and China, is based on a self-stabilising technology that does not carry the risk of a meltdown if things go wrong.

The reactors would not need to be sited alongside a lake or coast for cooling and could fuel downstream industries using the spent steam.