PBMR vessel, turbines, and generator
The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) is the terminology for South Africa's specific pebble bed reactor project and company. Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (Pty) Ltd has designed and is building a single module demonstration pebble bed reactor with a capacity of 165 MW. Assuming regulatory approvals, the demonstration plant will begin construction in 2008 with the first fuel load scheduled for 2012. If successful, South Africa intends to produce PBMR units for internal use and for export to Africa and the rest of the world. South Africa is planning to use 20 to 30 165 MW units to meet its own power needs.
The PBMR would be useful in many emerging nations than cannot afford billion dollar 1,000 MW power plants common in the US. Because the PBMR is refueled while in operation without being shut down, it can be a single, reliable electric power source in isolated regions. Exporting PBMRs could be a significant income source for South Africa, which is contemplating exporting 10 units per year, perhaps selling in the $150-200 million range. PBMR Pty Ltd has already taken preliminary steps with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license the PBMR for the US market.
Eskom, the South African utility company, began investigating pebble bed technology in 1993, obtaining a license for the technology first developed in Germany in 1966. Eskom was joined by other investors in 2000, including the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), and the US utility Exelon. Since then Exelon has dropped out and the BNFL role has been taken over by Westinghouse, which BNFL sold to Toshiba.
Progress is being made
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has been awarded the contract for the basic design of the core barrel assembly of the reactor vessel. According to PBMR Ltd, Mitsubishi will be the integrator and single point supplier for the complete system.
Prototype helium turbine built in Potchefstroom
The gas turbine test rig was built by the engineering department of the University of Potchefstroom near Johannesburg. The main pressure vessel of the test rig is 17.5 meters long and weighs 12 tons. The test rig represents the first closed-cycle, multi-shaft gas turbine in the world.
Uranium fuel kernels production
Pelindaba Labs has created a process for producing the small kernels of UO2 that are the fuel for the PBMR.
Earthlife Africa opposes the PBMR and in 2005 persuaded the court to set aside the positive Record of Decision on the environmental impact study. In January 2007 the Department of Environmental Affairs permitted the project to go ahead with the pilot fuel plant at Pelindaba.
Helium test facility
The project has constructed a helium test facility at Pelindaba near Pretoria. It is to test the complete, high temperature, high-pressure helium cycle. The test facility will also simulate fuel-handling, reactivity control, and shut-down.
The design and planning of the PBMR demonstration reactor and pilot fuel plant are well underway. Funds have been made available. The fuel plant environmental impact statement has been accepted, but the EIA for the demonstration reactor and the nuclear licensing still have to be finalized. Fuel fabrication, helium testing, and turbine manufacturing are underway. Plans are that the demonstration reactor will start construction in 2008 and be operating in 2012.