From Volume 37, Issue 26 of EIR Online, Published July 2, 2010
Africa News Digest

South Africa Jettisons the PBMR

June 22 (EIRNS)—The suicidal decision by the South African government to pull the plug on its technologically advanced pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) nuclear energy project was confirmed in a statement yesterday by Jaco Kleynhans, spokesman for the South African trade union Solidarity. He said that even if the government resumed funding the project in August, "it would be a case of too little, too late."

In February, because of increasing unemployment and other negative effects of the global financial collapse, the government announced drastic spending cuts for the PBMR development program. The state-owned PBMR company initially thought it would have to lay off 75% of its 800-person staff. Now it is being reported that the company will only be able to retain 25 people. Most of the skilled employees have found jobs in other countries, such as Australia, Canada, and the U.S.A. The departure of the key personnel is what led Kleynhans to his conclusion of "too little, too late," even if a trickle of funding were to be turned back on.

By abandoning the project, South Africa is writing off its investment in the new technology as a loss, as well as giving up a ten-year lead in a technology that will become more and more desired by other countries.

The PBMR was on schedule to be the first commercial HTR in the power-generation field. Since the company's founding in 1999, it has grown into one of the largest nuclear reactor design and engineering companies in the world. In addition to the core team of some 800 people at the head office in Centurion, near Pretoria, more than 1,000 people at universities, private companies, and research institutes are involved with the project.

The PBMR is safe, clean, cost-competitive, versatile, and adaptable. It is a Generation IV high-temperature gas-cooled reactor design, capable of both generating electricity and providing process heat for industrial uses. With the PBMR program, South Africa was a world leader in Generation IV technologies. The technology, when fully developed, would be ideal for the former colonial sector, because the safe reactors, though small, could be linked in a modular fashion to provide increasing amounts of power as industry and related physical economy advanced.

The inherent safety resulting from the gas-cooled design makes the reactor cheaper to produce. Much of the cost of existing water-cooled reactors results from the complexity of the cooling system.

"The [retrenchment] process has now almost been finalized," said Kleynhans. He characterized it as "a bitter time" for South Africa, and said that "the extent of the loss caused by the termination of the project" can't be calculated: "The future simply lies in nuclear energy, and because of South Africa's current electricity problems it can really be regarded as one of the only solutions to the growing electricity needs and problems."

South Africa itself is facing an electricity crisis; yet it is wasting money on the development of windmills for electricity, but has caved into the accountant-like calculations of economists from the formerly industrial trans-Atlantic powers, who say the financial return from the project is too far in the future, and that more immediate pressing concerns should be met first.

On May 4, Statistics South Africa reported that the South African unemployment rate was back above 25%, with 4.31 million out of work. Nearly 1 million people lost their jobs in South Africa last year, while a further 79,000 jobs were lost during the first quarter of this year. There had been a temporary construction job employment spurt, as preparations were made for the World Cup. That job source has now dried up.

The environmental movement welcomed the shelving of the PBMR project. Richard Worthington of the British royal family-linked World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa, said in February that the WWF had long called for government to "stop throwing good public money after bad on the PBMR." He added: "For a long time the nuclear industry has received more state support than the renewable energy industry. We hope this cut in funding signals a policy commitment to investing in renewables...."

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