Pebble Bed Reactor MOU Between China and South Africa
Just a couple of days ago, I broke one of my normal blogging rules and published a press release in its entirety. It was a good one that contained important information about low dose radiation that is useful to Atomic Insights readers, so I figured it was not a matter of me just being lazy and filling the space with content provided by someone else.
This morning, I received another press release that meets my criteria for direct publication. Read through it and then I will offer a thought or two about the potential importance of this announcement to the world’s future energy supply picture.
South Africa and China join forces in commercialisation of pebble bed technology
The advancement of the next generation of nuclear reactors has received a boost with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in Beijing on 26 March 2009 between the Chinese and the South African developers of pebble bed technology.
Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (Pty) Ltd (PBMR) of South Africa has been developing the pebble bed technology in parallel with the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology (INET) of Tsinghua University and Chinergy Co Ltd of China, whose pebble
bed concept is based on a 10 MW (thermal) research reactor that was started up in Beijing in December 2000 and achieved full power operation in January 2003. INET is a top nuclear research and experimental institute in China.
The MOU, based on mutual respect and appreciation for the developments achieved by both countries to date, is designed to facilitate cooperation on identified areas of common interest. South Africa and China hope to pursue collaboration in a number of strategic and technical areas relating to high temperature reactor (HTR) projects in both countries.
Prof Zhang Zouyi, Director of INET, says the MOU will create a strategic environment for the two parties to work together. He added that the MOU was the result of natural synergies between the South African and Chinese HTR project teams, which were
highlighted at an HTR conference in Washington DC in 2008. The Washington meeting was followed by a visit to South Africa by representatives from INET and Chinergy Co Ltd, earlier in 2009, in order to devise a framework for cooperation.
PBMR CEO Jaco Kriek welcomed the collaboration with China. He said the MOU will create interesting opportunities for the future commercialisation of the technology and strengthen supply chains in both countries, with the support of both the Chinese and South African governments. As emerging economies, both South Africa and China have extensive energy requirements, with an emphasis on increasing nuclear energy as part of the energy mix.
“While the two projects have chosen slightly different technical approaches, we both fully 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 China’s commitment to the technology, along with the ongoing PBMR project, further demonstrates the potential for advanced reactor technologies with passive, inherently safe characteristics.
“The pebble bed technology will bring a a new option to the energy market in the near future 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.”
South Africa and China are widely recognised as world leaders in the field of high temperature reactor design. Both South African and Chinese technologies use the same pebble fuel concept as a source of heat. The first commercial-scale plant (HTR-PM) in China will make use of indirect cycle, steam turbine systems, while PBMR has been developing a direct cycle gas turbine system. The HTR-PM features two 250 MW (thermal) reactor modules and a 210 MW (electric) steam turbine-generator set.
Recently, PBMR has also been involved in technology development work on indirect cycle, steam turbine systems, in response to growing interest from the process heat and cogeneration markets both locally and abroad. This near-term change in emphasis is causing much global interest and the company is in extensive discussions with a number of countries to exploit the technology effectively, whilst significantly mitigating licensing complexity.
PBMR’s most recent achievement is the successful manufacturing of coated particles which form the basis of high temperature reactor fuel containing 9.6% enriched uranium.
The Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology of Tsinghua University was founded in 1960 as a top nuclear research and experimental base in China. In the last fifty years, it has become a comprehensive research center with multi-disciplinary research, design and engineering projects mainly in nuclear technology. To further broaden academic disciplines of the institute, the full official name was changed into the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology (INET), in September 2003.
INET includes seventeen research divisions, four research centers and several workshops. Since it was founded, INET has set up a twin-core swimming-pool type Experimental Shielding Reactor, a 5 MW Nuclear Heating Reactor (NHR-5) and a 10 MW
High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor (HTR-10). INET’s research fields cover a wide spectrum related to nuclear, chemical, environmental and energy sciences. There are around 500 faculty and staff members and over 200 graduate students.
The Chinergy Co. Ltd (Chinergy) was founded in 2003 as a hi-tech enterprise. It is joint investment by China Nuclear Engineering & Construction Corporation(CNEC),Tsinghua Holding Co., Ltd. (THHC) and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Co. Ltd.(CGNPC).
The main business of Chinergy is industrialisation of nuclear energy and technology, serving as the general contractor for projects. The core technologies of Chinergy are the Module High-Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor (MHTGR) and Nuclear Heating Reactor (NHR).
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.
Since its establishment in 1999, Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (Pty) Ltd has grown into one of the largest nuclear reactor design teams in the world. In addition to the core team of some seven hundred people at the PBMR head-office in Centurion near Pretoria, more than a thousand people at universities, private companies and research institutes are involved with the project.
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.
PBMR’s current investors, the South African government, the South African electricity utility Eskom, the Industrial Dev
elopment Corporation of South Africa and the Westinghouse Electric Company in the United States, share the vision of small, standardised, inherently safe, modular reactors as one of the best carbon-free alternatives for new power generation and process heat capacity around the world.
Westinghouse’s involvement in PBMR is a clear indication of the confidence in the pebble bed technology’s technical, commercial and export potential. The PBMR project also enjoys solid support from the South African government, who regards it as one of the most important capital investment and development projects yet undertaken in the country.
Issued by: PBMR Corporate Communications
Date: 30 March 2009
Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (Pty) Ltd – Disclaimer
As long time readers know, I began publishing my thoughts about atomic fission partly as a marketing effort for Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. a tiny little company that I founded in 1993. Our mission at AAE is to figure out a way to add a new power source option, one that is simple enough to deploy almost anywhere, clean enough to operate inside sealed buildings, and durable enough to be used as a shipboard power source. One of the fundamental components of our power plant design concept is a pebble bed reactor that can provide gas temperatures high enough to enable the use of the Brayton Cycle, the same heat engine cycle that enables people to talk about how cheap the power plants are when you want to burn natural gas.
An obstacle that has hampered AAE’s plans is that there is no reliable source – yet – for the fuel elements that we need in order to construct our simple piles. (That is an old school term for reactor, but in the case of the pebble bed, it fits pretty darned well. The cores can be very simply a bucket of balls that get hot when there are enough balls and when you remove enough neutron absorbers.) Until we can simply purchase qualified fuel from a vendor, we are like a start-up diesel engine designer in a world where there are no refineries.
The Adams EngineTM concept for getting power out of the pebble beds is slightly different from either the Chinese or the South African approach, but we all need the same kind of fuel. Once that fuel is in mass production, there are a lot of synergies between all of our concepts. I cannot really explain just how excited I am by the prospects that there may be, in the not too distant future, a time when there will be several factories around the world cranking out spherical fuel elements that can be the basis for an almost infinite number of reactor configurations in a variety of sizes and power outputs. (Again, think of that diesel engine analogy and consider just how many different kinds of machines are out there operating on the same mass produced fuel.)
I am also excited by the prospects of the pebble bed concept to solve even larger problems than what AAE is planning to tackle. For example, think about all of those coal fired steam plants that China has famously built during its recent period of rapid growth. Suppose, just for an instant, that the long term thinkers in that country realize that there is an advantage to building fast, even when you know you might have to go back and make some improvements.
As my friend Jim Holm at coal2nuclear has pointed out to the world, a pebble bed reactor with inert gas cooling can be a very good boiler replacement at a steam power plant. That concept – especially with pebble bed reactors that are small enough to be inherently safe against melting – takes nearly complete advantage of most of the steam power plant systems yet turns a dirty, emission prone system that needs a continuous fuel source delivered by massive trains into a zero emission power plant that can operate for years without new fuel. That is a MUCH easier conversion for me to imagine than the notion of building a chemical processing and compression plant next to a coal burner in hopes of capturing and sequestering the CO2.