SA races for nuclear power prize
October 23, 2005
By Roy Cokayne
Pretoria - South Africa is in a race against international competitors for a major slice of the nuclear energy pie.
After more than two decades in the doldrums following the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in the US and the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986, countries are turning to nuclear technology again.
South Africa's thrust into the global atomic power market is premised on pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) technology and is being driven by PBMR Limited, whose chief executive, Jaco Kriek, anticipatesthe company will sell 100 PBMR units in the next 10 years, creating about 60 000 direct and indirect jobs.
Power utility Eskom, with a 40 percent stake, is the launch customer. PBMR Limited confirmed in August it was involved in talks with Eskom about the potential to add at least 24 commercial units to the utility's grid.
Tom Ferreira, a PBMR Limited spokesperson, referred to comments by public enterprises minister Alec Erwin in August that the government wanted to produce between 4 000 and 5 000 megawatts (MW) of power from pebble bed reactors in South Africa.
He said: "This equates to between 20 and 30 PBMR units of 165MW each. This project is now factored into our future energy planning from 2010."
Haresh Haricharun, the director for nuclear technology at the minerals and energy department, said nuclear power contributed 6 percent of South Africa's electricity needs. His office was drawing up a nuclear energy policy document, which would clarify the targets for the contribution nuclear should make to the electricity grid.
"We're at the very initial stages. I expect a draft early next year. From there, consultations will take place with interested and affected parties."
Ferreira stressed that PBMR Limited believed it was not only realistic but also advisable for nuclear plants to provide 20 percent of future new built capacity.
At a climate change conference this week, Haricharun called for nuclear energy to be an option in future plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
He said coal power stations emitted 1kg of CO2 per kilowatt hour versus about 20g per kilowatt hour for the complete lifecycle of an equivalent nuclear plant.
At the beginning of 2002, Haricharun said, 438 nuclear power rectors were in operation in 31 countries. They were generating electricity for nearly 1 billion people "in a reliable, environmentally safe and affordable manner without emitting noxious gases into the atmosphere".
Concerns over fuel resources, climate change, air quality and energy security also counted in its favour.
Haricharun said South Africa would need to replace its entire 36 000MW operational capacity by 2020. Coal, imported hydro, imported natural gas, nuclear and wind were all being investigated as energy sources.
Haricharun said nuclear power would contribute to diversity and security of supply. The export of nuclear technology, which was the springboard to clean production of hydrogen fuel,, was also promising.
PBMR Limited is scheduled to hand over its first demonstration plant to Eskom in 2011 and the first commercial plant in 2012.
However, Haricharun said South Africa was not alone in pursuing nuclear technology growth, which was being led by the Far East.
PBMR technology was attractive because the construction lead time to build a module was only 24 months; it required an emergency planning zone of less than 400m; and fuel integrity was maintained under the most severe possible accident.
Sue Ion, an executive director at UK-based BNFL, a partner in the project, claimed at the first PBMR supplier conference in August that pebble bed technology would be the next generation of reactor design and would be successful on the world stage.
The PBMR plan is expected to cost R14.5 billion and has two major thrusts: the construction of a demonstration plant at Koeberg near Cape Town and a pilot fuel plant at Pelindaba.
Construction is scheduled to start in 2007 and the demonstration plant is scheduled to be completed by 2010, with the first commercial PBMR modules expected to be available from 2013.
Eskom started investigating the technology in 1993. After commissioning feasibility, technical and economic studies, the project entered a full scale engineering design phase in 1998.
PBMR Limited was formed in 2000 by Eskom, the Industrial Development Corporation, BNFL and US utility Exelon to build and market pebble bed-based power plants. Exelon withdrew in 2002, leaving BNFL, with a 22.5 percent stake, as the only international equity partner in the project.
PBMR Limited chairman Alistair Ruiters said last month that a new investor was being sought to inject over R5 billion in return for a stake of up to 45 percent, adding that the company was in talks with France's Areva.
The government would retain at least a 51 percent stake in the project.
Ferreira said a number of local and overseas entities were conducting a due diligence on the project.
In August Eskom chief executive Thulani Gcabashe confirmed the utility would dilute its 40 percent stake to about 5 percent, after concerns were raised of a conflict of interest between its roles as shareholder and customer. The time scale of this dilution "depends on the equity calls made by the partners", he said.