The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. Remember? It was globally heralded as the perfect nuclear reactor: small, safe and cheap. Dozens would be built in South Africa alone and in 1999 the company expected to sell 30 reactors annually from 2004 on. Sometimes in the public opinion about the nuclear renaissance and new reactor types the PBMR was used if it was already in operation in South Africa or at least under construction.
Now, the South African government announced it is expected to close operations at PBMR (Pty) Ltd. finally 'within a few weeks' (that is August). The company once planned to build up to 24 165-MW high-temperature gas-cooled reactor modules for state-owned utility Eskom and export the modular HTR worldwide, but hasn't built even the demonstration model.
The government has invested an estimated South Africa Rand 9 billion (US$1.23 billion at current rates) in PBMR Ltd. over the 11 years since it was founded as an Eskom subsidiary. PBMR Ltd. is formally owned by Eskom, the Industrial Development Corp. and Westinghouse, but they have put no equity in the company for several years.
In a July statement, the Department of Public Enterprises, which has responsibility for the PBMR company, said PBMR "has not been able to acquire additional investment in the project since government s last funding allocation in 2007, nor has it been able to acquire an anchor customer despite revising its business model in 2008/09." The company is operating on funds that were left over from the 2007 allocation and has downsized from about 800 staff to about 25. Although the PBMR website doesn't show anything about the current situation, it says there are "no career opportunities at the moment."
The company was set up in 1999 as Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (Pty) Ltd. to develop and deploy German technology it had acquired for small HTRs with coated pebble-shaped fuel elements. Besides British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL), Exelon, the largest nuclear fleet operator in the US, also made an early equity investment, and the company was broadly touted as the herald of a new nuclear age for the developing world based on small reactors that could be set up quickly under various site conditions. BNFLs stake was transferred to Westinghouse when the latter was sold to Toshiba. But the PBMR partners never agreed on a new equity structure and the company remained the property of the South African government.
The Department of Public Enterprises believes the R9-billion spent on the PBMR project has not been lost, as the skills developed "will contribute significantly in any future nuclear programs and save the country huge amounts of money in the process".
One of the critics, Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich in the UK, told the Cape Times that it was clear at least six years ago that the PBMR project was "going badly wrong. Yet the government continued to pour public money into it, indeed about 80 percent of all the money spent on the pebble bed was spent in the past six years"
Tristen Taylor, of Earthlife Africa, said " We hope that this will also mark the end of the South African government's love affair with nuclear energy and that taxpayer funds can now be spent on clean, proven and reliable forms of renewable energy".
Official planning in 1998 3-2007 2009
Start construction demonstration-phase 1999 2008/9 2013
Demonstration-reactor ready 2003 2012 2018
First orders *1 2004 2017 ?
First electricity by first reactor 2008 2021 ?
*1 In 1998 it was expected that from 2004 on, annually 30 reactors would be ordered
Sources: Nucleonics Week, 29 July 2010 / Cape Times, 10 August 2010
Contact: WISE Amsterdam