SA nuclear firm awards design contract

The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor’s (PBMR) fuel division announced on Wednesday that it had awarded a design contract worth R10,5-million to a South African design house, Thermtron Projects, in a crucial second step in the PBMR fuel manufacturing technology, to prove sustainability on an industrial scale.

Thermtron will design the coated particle production facility; one of the facilities of the pilot fuel plant to be constructed at Pelindaba.

“This relationship is of major benefit to the pilot fuel plant, as there will be no significant learning curve required, as Thermtron already has an involvement with PBMR Fuel in the 5kg uranium coater,” said Thabang Makubire, the general manager of the fuel division.

Makubire said that this relationship also supported the intention of PBMR and the South African government to support local capability and to develop local capacity.

“Ultimately the benefits are a seamless relationship and the sustainability of jobs in this high-skill sector,” he said.

Last year, PBMR undertook the first step when it awarded a $20-million contract for the design, procurement, construction and cold commissioning of its pilot fuel plant utilities and infrastructure at Pelindaba near Pretoria to Uhde, a South African division of Germany’s Thyssenkrupp Engineering.

The facility will have an initial capacity of 270 000 nuclear fuel spheres per year.

The PBMR concept is based on experience in the United States and particularly Germany where prototype reactors were operated successfully between the late 1960s and 1980s. 

The utilities to serve the fuel plant will be designed and installed as part of this contract and are scheduled to be completed in January 2007.

The current schedule is to start construction in 2007 and for the demonstration plant to be completed by 2010. The fist commercial PBMR modules will be available from 2013.

In November 2004, the South African Minister of Public Enterprises, Alec Erwin, stated an aspiration to eventually produce 4 000 megawatts (MW) to 5 000 MW of power from pebble bed reactors in South Africa. 

This equates to between 20 and 30 PBMR reactors of 165MW each. The PBMR demonstration plant was also listed as a national strategic project in the February 2005 Budget speech of the Minister of Finance, Trevor Manual.

The reactor consists of a vertical steel pressure vessel lined with graphite bricks. It uses silicon carbide coated particles of enriched uranium oxide encased in graphite to form a fuel sphere or pebble, each containing about 15 000 uranium dioxide particles. Helium is used as the coolant and energy transfer medium.

The aim of the PBMR is to provide a cheaper form of electricity for the two thirds of humanity that have no or limited access to electricity.

A PBMR corporation was formed to oversee the commercialisation of the mini-nuclear reactor and comprised Eskom (30%), the state-owned Industrial Development Corp (25%) and British Nuclear Fuel Limited (22,5%). A 10% stake has been earmarked for a black empowerment stake and the remaining 12,5% for a foreign partner.

If PBMR can prove that it can produce hydrogen at commercial levels it may potentially offer a huge source of revenue to the company. Another spin-off application is to use low-temperature waste heat for seawater desalination.

The 2003 black-outs in Europe, Asia and North America highlighted the urgent need for more electricity generation capacity. Coal is not the answer, given environmental concerns about carbon dioxide emissions.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has forecast a threefold rise in nuclear power globally to one trillion watts by 2050, a move that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 1,8-billion tonnes.

At the end of 2002, there were 441 nuclear power plants operating in 30 countries, representing a total capacity of 359 gigawatts, more than 10 000 reactor-years of operating experience, 16% of global electricity generation and 7% of global primary energy use.

In at least 16 countries, nuclear power contributes more than 25% of the total electricity produced in each of those countries, with France and Lithuania producing more than 80% of their total electricity from nuclear power. - I-Net Bridge

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