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South Africa Looks To Restart Its Pebble Bed High-Temperature Nuclear Reactor Program

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EIRNS—In what would be a major advancement for South Africa and potentially the whole continent, David Nichols, chief nuclear officer for the government utility, Eskom, reported in an interview March 29th that the utility is studying restarting its high-temperature Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) program. South Africa abandoned its ground-breaking work on this 4th generation nuclear technology in 2010. As Nichols explains to EE Publishers coauthors Chris Yelland and Pierre Potgieter, it was not done for technical or commercial reasons, but "a mixture of many other things" which was, in fact, mainly being able to fund the research in an economy under financial attack. A factory had already been established to manufacture the unique pebble fuel elements. Nichols says that there will be interest in these small, compact reactors in all of Africa, once the first couple of reactors are built.

The South African Pebble Bed Modular Reactor was based on the original West German design, but Nichols reports that advances in technology over the past 30 years will improve the design and the cost of the reactors. New techniques, such as 3D printing, modular in-factory manufacturing, and substituting concrete for steel pressure vessels are three that he specifies in the interview.

At present, Nichols explains, a lab-scale research project is underway, with some minor engineering being done. Following that, would be a proof-of-concept machine, or a research machine, running by the mid-2020s. If all goes well, he says, ten years after that, "a commercial machine roll-out" would start. In South Africa, Nichols sees the PBMRs replacing some of Eskom’s old coal-burning plants, with reactors potentially placed at the old coal station sites. (More broadly, with its participation in the BRICS, and the support for energy development through the Silk Road and AIIB, it would seem that this timetable could be accelerated.)

Asked about the availability of the engineering and skilled manpower needed for the project, Nichols states that South Africa was "the world leader by a good margin. Most people are still around," many working on projects in the U.S. and elsewhere. "I don’t believe that if this goes into a serious engineering phase we’ll have a particular shortfall. My experience is that you create engineers by doing things, not by doing studies." [mgf]