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Troubled PBMR to finally shut down

South Africa

By Melanie Gosling

Environment Writer

The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor company, founded 11 years ago to build a couple dozen "pocket nuke" power stations around South Africa, is set to shut down finally this month, without having built even the demonstration model of the proposed nuclear power plants.

The Department of Public Enterprises is to ask the cabinet to approve its proposals to wind up the company completely "within the next few weeks".

The department said in a statement that the PBMR company, owned by Eskom, had not been able to attract any further investors or customers for the nuclear power plants it had planned to build.

"In the light of this, government has been working very hard exploring ways to wind down operations at PBMR," the statement said, while at the same time trying to find ways to keep the nuclear skills acquired in the project for use in South Africa's nuclear industry. Government was also trying to ensure it retained rights over the intellectual property.

This comes after government spent R9 billion of public money on the PBMR company, which hoped not only to build 24 pebble bed nuclear plants for South Africa, but to build nuclear plants for export and earn "billions" in foreign exchange. None of this happened.

The statement, issued by Public Enterprises spokeswoman Ayanda Shezi, said government had pulled its funding of the PBMR company in 2007.

"PBMR has not been able to acquire additional investment into the project since government's last funding allocation in 2007, nor has it been able to acquire an anchor customer, despite revising its business model in 2008/09," the department said. Because of this, government had allowed the company to retrench most of its staff, but still allowed it to continue being part of the US's "next generation nuclear plant" project as part of a consortium.

But "the situation was made worse" when a key member of the consortium pulled out of the US project, which led government to begin winding down the PBMR company completely.

Public Enterprises believes the R9-billion spent on the PBMR project has not been lost, as the skills developed "will contribute significantly in any future nuclear programmes and save the country huge amounts of money in the process".

One of the critics, Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich in the UK, told the Cape Times that it was clear at least six years ago that the PBMR project was "going badly wrong. Yet the government continued to pour public money into it, indeed about 80 percent of all the money spent on the pebble bed was spent in the past six years".

Thomas said it appeared government had learned "little or nothing" from the experience of the pebble bed.

"The government and Eskom now seem hell-bent on pursuing 'conventional' nuclear technologies," he said.

Tristen Taylor, of Earthlife Africa, said "sanity has finally prevailed and the PBMR experiment has come to an end, along with the scandalous waste of public funds. We hope that this will also mark the end of the South African government's love affair with nuclear energy and that taxpayer funds can now be spent on clean, proven and reliable forms of renewable energy".

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