Dan Yurman over at Idaho Samizdat: Nuke Notes has published a detailed update on the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor project out of South Africa.
The disappointing news is that the projected cost of the plants is quite a bit higher now than it was when I first started following this development in the mid 1990s. According to Dan, the most recent budgetary estimates add up to a cost per kilowatt capacity of about $3,500. That is much higher than what was originally projected when the PBMR concept was initially developed – back in the late 1990s, for example, the estimates for PBMRs were somewhere in the $1,000 per kilowatt capacity range.
Of course there has been quite a bit of inflation since that time, especially in the metals and other commodities that are a big portion of the capital cost of a power plant.
I cannot help but think, however, that part of the problem is that the designers are finding out just how difficult it is to move from a paper turbo machinery design to one that can operate reliably. The reactor design work seems to farther along, but there is still not a working closed cycle turbo-compressor system that can produce 165 MWe using high pressure helium as the working fluid. According to the company’s published schedules, the demonstration plant will not be operating until 2013.
Of course, there are other challenges associated with the introduction of a completely new form of power plant and the effort to ensure that the intellectual property associated with that development effort is properly protected. Finally there is the fact that PBMR is not just about building a new kind of power plant, but it is also about developing a new infrastructure for nuclear power plant design and construction in a place that did not start with a large indigenous capacity.
I remain a fan of the technology – the inherent safety features, the long term advantages of operating at higher temperatures and higher fuel efficiency and the possibility of making use of smaller units that will fit in a wider variety of grid sizes are all features that attract me to PBMR. I just wish that there was a way for the project to move a bit faster and for the costs to remain under a bit more control.