The announcement of the closure of the pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) project has affected the prominence given to high-temperature nuclear research in South Africa, leading to the shunning of such research, despite interest and funding from international countries and organisations seeking to develop the technology, says North West University (NWU) Postgraduate School for Nuclear Science and Engineering director Professor Eben Mulder.
Much of the country’s existing expertise in the area of high-temperature reactors is being sought by international companies and other countries aiming to develop this technology.
“South Africa has, as part of its Integrated Resource Plan, decided to develop 9.6 GW of nuclear electricity capacity by 2030, but has cancelled its funding of fundamental and novel research and development in nuclear sciences and engineering.
“South Korea has decided to build high-temperature reactors and China is busy building two high-temperature reactors, both of which we can still provide nuclear fuel for, owing to our existing facilities and capabilities for enrichment and nuclear fuel manufacturing,” he notes.
The research community in South Africa must take business decisions regarding research, because it affects the community’s development and long-term viability, he notes, adding that the removal of government funding for fundamental nuclear research has had broad implications for the retention of local nuclear expertise.
Mulder explains that research and develop- ment cannot focus on technologies that already exist but must, by definition, focus on the understanding and development of future technologies.
“My message to universities and research institutions in South Africa is: if you are convinced that research on a particular subject is the right direction to be taking as a research community and as a country, then continue with the research. We will be able to get funding from interested parties, as did the NWU Postgraduate School for Nuclear Science and Engineering.
“We will be able to retain our expertise in the country and can possibly expand it by using funding and interest from outside the country, if necessary,” he emphasises.
NWU, which boasts the only postgraduate school in nuclear engineering in South Africa, has responded to industry’s need for training in nuclear sciences and engineering by establishing a postgraduate diploma in nuclear sciences and technology. All its nuclear courses are recognised by the European Nuclear Education Network.
“There is a strong need from State-owned power utility Eskom for a training programme for its engineers and technicians and we, at the university, focus on light-water nuclear reactor technologies. However, whether light-water, heavy-water or pebble-bed high-temperature nuclear reactor technologies, the physics remains the same and the difference is the application of the research,” he explains.
Further, the research around, and development of, solutions to the most vexing problems of first-generation nuclear reactors, such as the creation of plutonium (which has a half life of about 24 100 years and can be used to make nuclear weapons) in nuclear power plants, has also been hamstrung by the decision to stop the PBMR project, he adds.
“The research that went into the PBMR project focused on the common questions of nuclear fission, such as the reduction of plutonium generation by using thorium-based fuels and the elimination of the threat of core meltdown through the use of graphite balls embedded with coated particles of fuel.”
Meanwhile, the cost of developing a large-scale nuclear fission reactor, similar to Koeberg, in the Western Cape, is significant and similar to the cost of developing large-scale fossil fuel power plants, such as Medupi, in Limpopo, and Kusile, in Mpumalanga.
“The costs are prohibitively expensive and even more so if we take into account the cost of transmission of the electricity. Transmission and distribution costs can constitute about 51% of total project costs, especially if the transmission grid code must be upgraded from the current 1 000 MW capacity to the 1 600 MW needed to transmit these plants’ generated power,” he notes, stating that South Africa can expect a doubling of the costs incurred by the development, however necessary, of these large-scale power plants.
Using the example of the PBMR small-scale thermal reactors, Mulder states that, though the installed cost per kilowatt hour of these 100 MW thermal, or 40 MW electric, power plants is more expensive than that of the large-scale power plants, the cost of constructing these small-scale power plants would have been between $150-million and $250-million, enabling private-sector companies, such as smelters or mines, to erect such plants for their own use.
Further, the small-scale reactors could have been repaid within a matter of years, instead of the 20-year return on investment for large-scale thermal reactors, while the reduction in transmission costs (achieved by placing the plants close to the load centres) reduces the total cost of such an installation, he adds.
“Fundamental research and development, thus, has significant benefits beyond the short-term commercial value of technologies and developments.”
Meanwhile, Mulder emphasises that high-level research and development by science disciplines at universities and research institutions generates the expertise necessary to enable the creation of successful and sustainable industries in a country.
South Africa needs to ‘beneficiate’ its people to establish complementary expertise focus areas at different institutions that will constitute the critical mass of knowledge necessary to enable the development of new technologies and further development of existing technologies.
This expert community will enable the deploy- ment of technologies without the need to pay significant sums of money to other countries that have the knowledge to implement the technologies, he says.
“We must use research and knowledge gene- ration to support all sorts of industries. But this means that we must focus on leading in research, not following in technology application. Follow- ing in research means that we will always pay the maximum for a particular technology, rather than developing, implementing and then commercialising a technology,” says Mulder.
Further, the development of technologies means that industries can be established in the country, which will lead to job creation and reduce costs, owing to local content generation and the commercial value of these technologies.
“We sit today with our most important asset, which is people. If I were asked what South Africa spent the $1.5-billion that went into the development of the PBMR on, besides the test, pilot fuel plant and fuel coating facilities built at NWU, in Potchefstroom and at Pelindaba, I would answer that expertise focus areas were established in a programme that bound together all the universities of the country. Each institution contributed research and knowledge based on its research strengths.
“For example, NWU focused on nuclear engineering, the University of Pretoria focused on graphite technology, the University of the Witwatersrand studied radiation and shielding technologies, Stellenbosch University investigated heat transfer and heat pipe development and the University of Cape Town investigated nuclear isotopes and uses, while the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University performed characterisation of nuclear fuel by means of scanning/transmission electron microscopy,” he concludes.