Government pulls plug on PBMR

18 July 2010 - 02:00 By PREGA GOVENDER
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The government has pulled the plug on its ambitious nuclear energy programme after pumping more than R9-billion into it over more than 11 years.

The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Company (PBMR), which was established in 1999 to build small nuclear power reactors, faces imminent closure.

In a letter dated July 5, Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan told the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM): "The minister of finance has clearly stated that there will be no further funding for the company, and I would like to reiterate that this position has not changed.

"It is clear that the remainder of the cash on hand is to be utilised solely for the winding down of the company as well as the preservation of the intellectual property."

One objective was to design, license and build a prototype nuclear reactor plant, which, if successful, would have paved the way for building small power plants to help meet SA's needs.

The company operates as an independent entity governed by an agreement between founding investors Eskom, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and US nuclear giant Westinghouse.

It has spent R5-billion on projects since 1994, including R2.7-billion on a demonstration power plant, which was to have been built at the Western Cape's Koeberg nuclear power station, but was later scrapped. In the process, the company wasted R268-million on the manufacture of a major component of the demonstration power plant, a 2000-ton reactor pressure vessel.

The vessel, which is due to leave the Spanish port of Santander next Sunday, will be stored at Saldanha Bay for R10000 a month as the company can no longer afford the R1.4-million it will cost to transport it to Pretoria.

Business Times was told that the company decided to have the component shipped to SA as it would have been liable for R34-million in VAT had it remained in Spain. Nuclear experts were unanimous this week that the vessel would have to be scrapped as the PBMR company changed the original design of the demonstration power plant last year to 200MW from 400MW. The vessel can function in a 400MW power plant only.

Although the part is unfinished, as the contract for its construction was cancelled last year, PBMR was forced to pay the Spanish builder R268-million for the incomplete product. The original contract price was R317-million.

Payments to companies that made parts for the demonstration power plant include:

  • R503.2-million to Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for a helium turbine for the power plant;
  • R256.8-million to German company SGL Carbon for manufacturing carbon reflector blocks; and
  • R256-million for graphite for the demonstration power plant.

The company also spent millions of rands manufacturing coated uranium oxide particles encapsulated in graphite fuel spheres, which were sent to Russia for testing.

However, staff say the financial cut-off did not stop the company recently giving golden handshakes of R1.8-million each to some of its general managers.

Last year, the company's 11 executives were paid a combined R18-million in salaries and other benefits. Other big payments since 1994 include:

  • R2-billion to mostly overseas consultants;
  • R115.9-million for building rental;
  • R707.9-million for the construction of a pilot fuel plant; and
  • R172-million for overheads.

Hogan recently turned down a rescue plan proposed by the NUM that included a request for a R262-million government bail-out until March next year. In a detailed submission to Hogan, the union called on the auditor-general's office to conduct a forensic investigation into the company's financial affairs.

The union also called on the government to suspend the company's board and executive officers. It said some engineers and scientists were "inappropriately qualified" for nuclear reactor engineering applications.

"The actions of certain individuals can be treated as sabotage for changing the design almost every second year. It seemed as if they did not want to see the reactor built."

Union general secretary Frans Baleni deplored the company's "wasteful expenditure. The closure is marked by serious allegations of corruption and unethical conduct. We would be pleased if it can be investigated thoroughly," he said.

A nuclear expert employed at PBMR blamed the board and executives for the company's failure. "The technology in terms of electricity production was good, but the only problem was that it was not well managed. Nothing was ever achieved by the company. It was a waste of taxpayers' money."

Eskom said in a short statement that it was a minority investor, and referred queries to PBMR.

PBMR's acting chief executive Alex Tsela declined to comment, referring all questions to the company's corporate communications department, which could not be reached for comment.

The chairman, Alistair Ruiters, could not be reached for comment either.

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