South Africa’s government on Thursday announced it would no longer invest in the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project, despite providing nearly 80% of the R9.2 billion ($1.3 billion) that has been poured into development of the Generation-IV helium-cooled high temperature reactor design. The decision was reached with the “fiscal constraints in these hard economic times” in mind, the government said.

The cutting-edge modular PBMR would have used graphite-encased fuel spheres—or pebbles—of uranium dioxide (coated with silicon carbide pyrolytic carbon) to generate heat as well as power. The 800-member PBMR project team, based in Centurion near Pretoria, South Africa, was established in 1999 to develop and market small-scale reactors both locally and internationally.

But as the country’s public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan told its National Assembly last week, the scale and size of the company would be “drastically reduced to a handful of people, with the focus being on the retention of its intellectual property, and of certain skills, and the preservation of its assets.”

The decision was not taken lightly, nor had the government lost sight of the impressive scientific advancements and significant investment already made in the project, Hogan said. A number of “sobering realities” had forced the cuts, she said, including PBMR’s inability to secure another investment partner.

The government had also considered that further investment in the project could well exceed R30 billion ($4.27 billion), and that the project had been missing deadlines, with construction of the first demonstration model delayed further into the future. Another consideration was that the opportunity to participate in the  U.S. Next Generation Nuclear Plant program had been lost when a Westinghouse consortium in May withdrew from the program.

“Should South Africa embark on a nuclear build programme in the near future, it will not be using Pebble Bed Technology, which is a Generation IV Nuclear Technology (i.e. technologies that are still primarily in the Research and Design Phase) but would have to consider options in Generations II and III,” she said.

Outlining the government’s next steps, Hogan said that the PBMR project would be placed in a "care and maintenance mode" to protect the intellectual property and the assets in PBMR.  The Fuel Development Laboratory would also be decommissioned and the Helium Test Facility would be mothballed.

State-owned utility Eskom had contributed 8.8% of the R9.2 billion poured into the project so far. Westinghouse and the Industrial Development Corp. had invested 4.9% each, and Exelon Corp. had invested 1.1%.

Eskom had had originally been expected to be the PBMR’s  anchor customer, but proposals to buy up to 24 reactors as part of the country’s power capacity expansion plans fell flat between 2005 and 2009, when it became clear that based on the direct-cycle electricity design, “PBMR’s potential investor and customer market was severely restricted and it was unable to acquire either,” Hogan said.
“It is absolutely clear from all the high-level reviews that have been undertaken that there is no doubt about the validity of Pebble Bed Technology itself. The main feature of the Pebble Bed Reactor is that its safety features are inherent in the physics of the design, as opposed to add-on engineered safety features as found on current Light Water Reactor (LWR) nuclear plants,” she noted.

“In the PBMR original design, the system is a so-called direct cycle where the reactor coolant which is helium in our case, passes through the turbo generator plant without an intermediate system such as a boiler. This arrangement promised greater thermal efficiency and safety, hence its attractiveness as a future nuclear generation technology.”

The U.S. and China are both engaged in developing PBMR technology, but South Africa had led efforts in development of the design that originated in Germany.

Sources: POWERnews, South Africa’s Ministry of Public Enterprises