Over the past several days, I have read a series of somewhat troubling and negative articles about the PBMR project in South Africa. There is pressure from the government and discussion about whether or not the large project, which employs about 750 scientists, engineers and technicians, will continue to be funded.
There is good reason for concern – the project has been in existence for about 15 years and has not yet succeeded in building a power generation plant. Though I am a fan of the basic technology, I can understand why there are some calls for termination. My own call would be more of a “put up or shut up” call for the organization to focus and actually start building products for paying customers so they could stop being completely dependent upon government support, but there is also a substantial amount of pressure coming from people who do not even want the project to succeed.
This morning I received a press release from PBMR Pty Ltd that provided at least some reason for optimism that the team will not be completely broken up and that at least some valuable technology will finally enter the commercial market. Here is the complete release, along with contact information if you want to find out more.
South Africa’s Pebble Bed company joins forces with MHI of Japan
The advancement of the next generation of nuclear reactors has received a boost with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on 3 February by South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (Pty) Ltd (PBMR) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd (MHI) of Japan.
MHI did the basic design and research and development of a helium-driven turbo generator system and Core Barrel Assembly, the major components of PBMR’s original 400 MW thermal, direct-cycle design. This concept was changed last year to a 200 MWt design which delivers super-heated steam through a generator.
The main objective of the MOU is to explore cooperation to enable the construction of the first PBMR reactor for a customer in either South Africa or abroad. The MOU sets out the basis on which the parties will negotiate to identify a project or projects with the potential for possible cooperation. When such areas have been agreed, MHI will conduct part of the research and development activities for the 200 MWt plant design. Possibilities for further collaboration will be probed, including construction of the first plant.
The 200 MWt design is aimed at steam process heat applications operating at 720°C, which provides the basis for penetrating the nuclear heat market as a viable alternative for carbon-burning, high-emission heat sources. In addition to generating electricity, this concept can also service potential customers such as the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project in the US, which is funded by the US Department of Energy, oil sands producers in Canada and the South African petro-chemical industry.
According to Mr. Akira Sawa, MHI’s Executive Vice-President and General Manager of Nuclear Energy Systems, MHI is delighted to still be involved in the PBMR project. “We firmly believe that High Temperature Reactors will be one of the viable future reactors. We are therefore prepared to perform certain research and development work to assist in the success of this project.”
He says the future potential of the technology lies in the utilisation of higher output temperatures from the reactor system. “There are therefore important additional technological development opportunities that can be exploited. The possibility that PBMR may in future still want to pursue the direct cycle, gas-turbine design, should also not be ruled out.”
PBMR CEO Jaco Kriek welcomed the cooperation with MHI. He said the MOU can create interesting opportunities for the future commercialization of the technology, such as jointly developing and exploiting markets for the pebble bed plants.
“Both companies believe that high temperature, gas-cooled reactors using pebble fuel offer the best potential for sustainable, clean, reliable and safe sources of energy globally,” says Kriek. He added that MHI’s participation in the project further demonstrates the potential for advanced reactor technologies with passive, inherently safe characteristics.
“The pebble bed technology will bring a new option to the energy market which offers flexible, smart grid solutions for electricity, customer-centric process heat and steam solutions for petrochemical industries, oil sands extraction and desalination. It will also pave the way to high-temperature hydrogen production.”
He pointed out that the PBMR is especially considered to be well suited to applications in areas lacking a fully developed power transmission grid.
The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) is a high temperature gas-cooled reactor with a closed-cycle, gas turbine power conversion system. Although it is not the only gas-cooled, high-temperature reactor currently being developed in the world, the South African project is internationally regarded as a leader in the global high-temperature reactor technology. The PBMR is characterised by inherently safe features, which mean that no human error or equipment failure can cause an accident that would harm the public.
Heat from the PBMR can be used for a variety of industrial process applications, including process steam for cogeneration applications, in-situ oil sands recovery, ethanol applications, refinery and petrochemical applications. The high-temperature heat can also be used to reform methane to produce syngas (where the syngas can be used as feedstock to produce hydrogen, ammonia and methanol); and to produce hydrogen and oxygen by decomposing water thermochemically. The waste heat of the PBMR can furthermore be applied to produce water via desalination.
About Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd (MHI), headquartered in Tokyo, Japan, is one of the world’s leading heavy machinery manufacturers. MHI’s diverse lineup of products and services encompasses shipbuilding, power plants, chemical plants, environmental equipment, steel structures, industrial and general machinery, aircraft, space rocketry and air-conditioned systems.
Issued by: PBMR Corporate Communications
Date: 4 February 2010
Enquiries: Tom Ferreira
Phone: +27 (0) 83 264 6188 + 27 (0)12 641 1132
UpdateL Posted on February 5, 2010 at 0612 – Dan Yurman over at Idaho Samizdat has an interesting post dated February 2, 2010 titled Areva peers into the future of nuclear energy. He describes a group called the NGNP alliance composed of some very large, well capitalized companies that is interested in designing and building a 300 MWe high temperature gas cooled reactor. Here is a quote that provides the reason that I added this update to the post about Mitsubishi’s involvement with the PBMR:
Market opportunities for the new reactor include providing process heat for oil refineries and chemical plants. The reactor would be designed to deliver heat in the range of 450-550C. For applications in the Alberta tar sands, heat would come out of the reactor at 450C and could be piped up to 10 Km arriving at the mining site at 350C.
Areva is looking for partners to develop the reactor. Southworth said one of them will be Mitstubishi,” he said.
In 2009 the Department of Energy announced a $40 million NGNP funding opportuni
ty through the INL’s NGNP program. The award date has long since passed with no word from the agency whether it will ever spend the money. “We’re disappointed by the delay,” Southworth said.