Pebble Bed Technology


Thabo Mbeki’s dream of an African Renaissance is probably one of the main reasons why he gives his total support to the development of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) to put South Africa at the forefront of Nuclear Power technology.


The South African Government has put and will continue to put, significant amounts of funding into PBMR research and is at the point of building a demonstration plant at Koeburg the site of their existing Nuclear Power Plant.


As can be seen in other fast developing countries the demand for electricity grows at equally fast rates.  People want their air-conditioning units, refrigerators, TV sets etc and industry and commerce begin to consume as they expand.   India and  China are moving out of the third world category based on a policy of energy supply.


The economy of South Africa is growing at around 6% per annum and their electricity supply capacity is reaching its peak.  A recent mechanical fault on a turbine left the Cape Town area with blackouts for long periods indicating that there is no more “slack” in the distribution system.  Eskom, the national power generator, has just taken 3 coal fired power stations out of moth balls to recommission them such is the demand.


Coal supplies 90% of the country’s electricity, nuclear 5% and the remainder being hydro, pumped storage schemes and non-grid local schemes.  There is a private sector wind farm development in the Northern Cape and Eskom want to develop wind and solar farms.


Coal resources are now limited and new coalfields are being looked at for development.  No new hydro sites can be economically developed and water shortage is a problem.  Natural gas is too limited to be a viable option, but immediate short term demand means that Eskom is building 2 new combined cycle gas power stations, both in Cape Province, because these are the quickest to build but will eventually need imported gas.


Concious of their Kyoto commitments also President Mbeki realises that nuclear can play a major part in solving the problems of South Africa.  Not only that but the technology will be developed by South Africa and if successful could be an answer to energy supply problems of other developing countries.


Whereas a conventional reactor would normally be built to general 1000m watts, each PBMR module would generate around 165 M Watts and is regarded as inherently safe, clean, adaptable and economical.


Alec Erwin, Minister for Public Enterprises and key supporter of the PBMR, stated an interest for PBMR’s to eventually produce 4000/5000 M Watts which would equate to 4 or 5 power plants with 6 modules each.  So 24 or 30 PMBR reactors would be built.


After that exports to the world are expected to follow.  The estimate for immediate sales would be for 70 modules to countries such as the USA, Japan, UK, South Korea, Argentina & Turkey.  Morocco and Egypt are interested in PBMR for reasons of flexibility, primarily de-salination purposes.  In fact the original German scientists who conceived the Pebble Bed principle did so from a safety point of view and also for the options available in its application eg to create hydrogen from water, district heating purposes, chemical production and desalination.  The African market would then be the next target.


South Africa’s economic growth now demands 1200 M Watts of electricity every year.  So by the 2020’s all of its natural resources will be called upon to meet this need, which means generating about 20,000 M Watts over and above the present 39,000 M Watts already installed.  To complicate matters, many existing coal fired power stations will be coming to the end of their working lives by then.


The original R & D took place in Germany and a research reactor operated from 1968 to 1988.  After Chernobyl in 1986, political decisions meant that the reactor was decommissioned and Germany was never more to pursue this ‘first of a kind’ technology.


In 1999 Eskom gained the right to access the engineering database and South Africa has never looked back since.


The Government has a positive approach, so does public opinion and there is no broad populist movement against it.  The environmental NGO Earthlife has caused delays by court actions but has no broad constituency.  Earthlife have allegedly claimed that by 2050 50% of South Africa’s electricity can be powered by renewables, what they haven’t said is where the other 50% will come from.


Cutting edge technology giving an answer to the fight against global warming, helping fight poverty, and giving spin-offs that will benefit millions.  And it’s coming out of Africa.  Now that’s what you call an African Renaissance.


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