Engineering News Online
October 12, 2006

America’s Department of Energy (DoE) has embarked on the first stage of a programme that could result in the construction of a South African-designed pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) in the US.

This step took the form of a $3-million contract awarded on the last day of September by the DoE to a US-South African consortium, for first-phase engineering work for America’s Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) at the Idaho National Laboratory.

The South African members of the consortium are PBMR (Pty) Ltd, the company responsible for the development of the PBMR technology, and M-Tech Industrial, of Potchefstroom.

“The Americans are looking at building a proto- type nuclear plant for process heat production, and not only for electricity generation, as a first step towards the creation of a hydrogen economy,” explains PBMR (Pty) Ltd CEO Jaco Kriek.

“Although the US project is still in its pre- conceptual phase, this is a huge signal that South Africa’s PBMR is world-class,” he affirms.

“There are quite a few other competing nuclear reactor technologies, yet they went for ours – this is very significant,” he points out.

Moreover, the prototype PBMR plant to be built in South Africa will be purely a power generation unit.

Thus, the US programme could see the construction of the process heat prototype using American and not South African money – and the PBMR company believes that process heat applications will be as big a market for their reactor as electricity generation, if not bigger (see Engineering News March 31, 2006).

Further, PBMR is hopeful that involvement in this project will assist in the licensing of its reactor in the US.

“We are already working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to this end,” he assures.

“We are in this consortium and this project not only because we have the PBMR design, but because that design has been converted into components – we have manufactured engineering designs and some components are already being made,” explains Kriek.

“No one else can say this, not even the Chinese,” he asserts.

(China has operated a small – 10 MW – pebble-bed research plant in Beijing for some years now; the Chinese and South Africans have a memorandum of understanding which allows them to exchange experiences and knowledge about PBMR technology.) Rival fourth-generation nuclear reactor technologies are not as advanced as the South African PBMR.

“But we are also in this project because of our design and modelling experience and capability,” he highlights.

The US members of the consortium are Westinghouse Electric Company (the consortium leader); Shaw, Stone & Webster (based in Boston, Massachusetts); Technology Insights (San Diego, California); Air Products & Chemicals (Allentown, Pennsylvania); Nuclear Fuel Services (Erwin, Tennessee); and Kadak Associates (Providence, Rhode Island).

Westinghouse owns 15% of the PBMR company.

The contract awarded to the Westinghouse/PBMR consortium is one of three awarded by the DoE, with a total value of $8-million, all involving engineering studies and preconceptual design for the NGNP.

The other two contracts were awarded to General Atomics of the US and Areva of France.

“These contracts are for complementary engineering studies; our contract is the main contract,” clarifies Kriek.

This contract will run for 12 months and is intended to be just the first phase in the multi-phase programme which, if all goes well, will result in the construction of a prototype process heat PBMR at the Idaho National Laboratory.

This programme is part of the DoE’s ‘Generation IV nuclear energy systems initiative’ which seeks to develop next-generation reactor technologies.

This initiative, in turn, is authorised by the Energy Policy Act passed by the US Congress last year.