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How did PBMR begin?
From Germany to South Africa
  • A German scientist, Prof. Rudolf Shulten developed the concept for a modular pebble bed reactor in Germany in the late 1950s.
  • Knowledge gained from the German AVR led to the design of a 300MWe (750 MWth) thorium high-temperature reactor (THTR) which operated between 1985 and 1988. The THTR was a first-of-its-kind production plant intended to demonstrate the viability a different subsystem hardware designs, with specific emphasis on plant availability and maintainability.
  • Two German-based groups ABB and Siemens Interatom further developed the technology and eventually for Hochtemperatur Reaktorbau Gmbh.
  • Siemens was in the process of negotiating orders for several reactors from the then East German government, the USSR and a German corporation when, in 1989, the Berlin wall fell. As a result, negotiations came to an end.
  • Budget constraints and token appeasement of the anti-nuclear lobby led to the pebble bed technology reaching a dead-end in Europe.
South Africa enters the world stage
In 1988, Dr Johan Slabber, later Chief Technology Officer of Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (SOC), met with Professors Rudolf Schulten and Kurt Kugeler of Aachen University. During this meeting a proposal was formulated for a South African pebble bed based, direct cycle reactor with a steel cable reinforced cast steel reactor vessel built up from sections, which could be manufactured by the SA industry.
Because of the socio-political and economic climate of the time, the South African Atomic Energy Corporation (now NECSA), where Dr Slabber was employed at that time, halted all reactor programmes and consequently did not pursue the proposal. When Slabber joined the systems engineering house IST in 1989, he introduced the South African utility, with the concept. Eskom immediately realised the opportunity of acquiring access to billions of rands worth of fully developed technology that might otherwise lie idle. In 1999, Eskom obtained the right to access the HTR engineering database that includes details of the Siemens/Interatom HTR-Modul design.
In 2000 Eskom, the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa (IDC), British Nuclear Fuels and the US utility PECO entered into an investment agreement to build and market PBMR-based power plants). Exelon soon took over the PECO interests. Exelon ended its investment in order to focus on its core business of power generation plant operations and power sales brokerage.
In January 2006, the US nuclear giant, Westinghouse, took over the 15% shareholding previously held by BNFL. The share transfer was part of BNFL's restructuring process and the UK Government's decision to sell. (Westinghouse was previously wholly-owned by BNFL)
A feasibility study and associated projects, completed towards the end of 2002 concluded that the technology was viable. It also concluded that PBMR power plants represented the lowest levelised cost option in 11 of 14 major markets analysed, while being competitive in the remaining three.
Read more on how South Africa developed PBMR technology.
Have a look at the PBMR timeline.
Last Updated: 16 May 2017
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