As frequent readers know, I am a huge fan of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project that has been under development in South Africa since 1993. Though there have been some hurdles over the years, and the project has had to overcome a significant amount of resistance, the PBMR team – originally from Eskom, now a separate company named PBMR (Pty) Ltd – is now close to producing their introductory module. During the past few months, PBMR (Pty) Ltd has signed a number of important component production contracts.
I like the project and the concept for a number of reasons. As a technical development, it is exciting to see that people are recognizing that not all reactors have to be 1000 MWe (or larger) central station power plants in order to be economical. The PBMR is a modular design with each reactor power unit producing approximately 170 MWe. These smaller units will increase the reach of nuclear fission power into new markets that cannot integrate the power output supplied by traditional nuclear plants.
The economics for the PBMR are also attractive. South Africa currently has some of the lowest cost electricity in the world, produced for the most part by coal burning power plants located very close to some extremely productive and low cost coal deposits. Those coal deposits – fortunately, in my opinion – are not universally distributed throughout the country; there are significant population and growth centers that are 1000 or more miles away from the current generation centers. When the economists and engineers at Eskom carefully evaluated the available power systems to supply those growing needs, they found that the PBMR was the low cost option, even compared to expanded coal fired production.
When it comes to safety, I have to choose my words carefully. The PBMR is not “safer” than traditional nuclear reactors – it is very difficult to prove that anything is safer than a power production system with the amazing track record produced by commercial nuclear power plants over the past 40 years. It is, however, possible to say that the safety provisions required for the PBMR are easier and cheaper than they are for conventional reactors. Even under the very creative – and generally quite unrealistic and amazingly conservative – worst case analysis methods generally employed by the nuclear industry, the PBMR requires fewer engineered systems, fewer back up systems, and a smaller exclusion area.
Even though I have been following this project for more than a dozen years and writing about it for at least five years, I am occasionally surprised by new information. It has been common knowledge for PBMR news junkies like me that BNFL has been the only major foreign investor in the project since about 2002 when Exelon, the largest nuclear utility in the United States, ended its participation.
A couple of months ago, however, I came across some information indicating that Westinghouse was playing a significant role in the final development and commercialization of the PBMR. That fact confused me a bit until I realized that Westinghouse, the pioneer in the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) technology that underpins about 50% of the world’s nuclear power plants, was now owned by BNFL. I guess I had lost track of the ownership of the Westinghouse brand name after a previous iteration of the company morphed from one of the premier engineering companies in the world into a broadcast network.
I recently had the good fortune to interview Dr. Regis Matzie, Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer, Westinghouse Electric Company, LLC. Dr. Matzie represents the Westinghouse arm of BNFL on the PBMR (Pty) Ltd board of directors. Among his many other accomplishments, Dr. Matzie graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1965 and served as an active duty submarine officer for five years. Apparently, his sleep patterns were set early in his career; he invited me to call him “first thing in the morning” for this interview. That is how I found myself on the 2nd of June 2005, at 0730, still sweating after my morning workout and having a cup of coffee outside the Crystal City Starbucks.