Engineering Dissent: Is Chris Yelland’s scepticism of Stratek Global justified or cynical?

Nuclear power has long been a contentious issue and it is often criticised by the interests of other competing energy sources as either unbankable or too dangerous, the writer says. File image

Nuclear power has long been a contentious issue and it is often criticised by the interests of other competing energy sources as either unbankable or too dangerous, the writer says. File image

Published Apr 17, 2024


By Hügo Krüger

The recent announcement of Stratek Global teaming up with the DeepTech incubator Koya Capital to help secure funding and construct a R9 billion ($480 million), first-of-a-kind (FOAK) HTMR-100 (100MWth and 35MWe), Helium Cooled Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) in South Africa has sparked a mix of public scepticism as well as genuine excitement for South Africa’s nuclear industry.

Nuclear power has long been a contentious issue and it is often criticised by the interests of other competing energy sources as either unbankable or too dangerous.

Small modular reactors, like Stratek Global’s HTMR-100 design, aim to reduce upfront costs by making the technology accessible for investment by the private sector.

Additionally, its passive safety systems should make gas-cooled reactors more socially acceptable to those affected by radiophobia, the irrational fear of radiation that is not based on scientific evidence.

Yet with Dr Kelvin Kemm proving some critiques, including myself, wrong, by seemingly attracting potential investors for his start-up, it would seem that others are not satisfied. They say the technology won’t work.

A notable sceptic who recently raised his voice is electrical engineer Chris Yelland. He tweeted that the investment opportunity might be a “pump and dump scheme", leading to a confrontation with Ivo Vegter, a columnist for the ”Daily Friend“.

The PBMR’s history has heavily divided South Africa’s energy community.

When many engineers and scientists who worked on the project point out that we were the first country with a commercial gas-cooled reactor, the critics quickly snap back, saying the PBMR was essentially a spin-off of the German THTR-300 reactor or the US Peach Bottom Reactor that was shut down in 1989 and 1968 respectively.

The critics assert that the PBMR’s technical challenges were not solved in South Africa and that the 5 year estimate “to complete the project” would take at least another 10 years.

Why did the PBMR fail?

First, it is important to recognise that there is a systemic flaw in South Africa’s politics where a new faction within the ANC often leads to a rapid change in the energy policy, and nuclear energy, sadly, tends to be a casualty.

Incidentally, the Nelson Mandela government notably cancelled Tokoloshe, our experimental fusion reactor, and Cyril Ramaphosa’s faction came to power amid allegations of a R1 trillion Russian deal (a number for which there is no concrete evidence).

The PBMR project followed a similar fate, being discontinued by Barbara Hogan when she became minister of public enterprises during the Zuma administration.

When Eskom lost interest in its development, the PBMR was deemed “too expensive” and the politicians quickly found reasons to cancel the project.

The expenditure of about R7.3bn in 2010, equivalent to R20bn in today’s money, would be less than the diesel budget in 2023!

Yet around the same time, South Africa saw fit to spend about seven times that amount of money on the soccer World Cup and almost the same amount on building soccer stadiums! One does not have to be a nuclear advocate to acknowledge that this was an own goal.

Despite this, there were technical challenges of the PBMR project that do require careful consideration.

The price cited in the announcements is around $13.5/watt, which aligns with the cost of FOAK reactors in China, Canada and the US.

While it's an open question how the money will be raised, relying solely on South Africa’s farmers to provide all the capital and meet electricity demand seems uncertain.

For the scheme to be economically viable, South Africa's industrial clients must also be encouraged to buy into the scheme.

The challenge with all SMRs however, is getting from a paper design to a working prototype, the so-called “commercialisation valley of death" when investors don’t know if they should jump or be cautious.

My advice for Dr. Kemm would be to involve the regulator early. Working with the body closely is essential, as it has been a stumbling block for various SMR startups in the past, with major design changes occurring as the project progresses. I furthermore have some questions that relate to the previous PBMR. The regulator will probably raise them as they relate to the success and safety of the reactor.

●How mature is the design? Is it conceptual or detailed?

●How will the Triso Fuel be manufactured? Does Stratek Global intend to establish a working relationship with The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa or will the fuel be imported from elsewhere?

●Does the Department of Minerals and Energy have a policy to accommodate private companies to work with enriched uranium under certain conditions?

●Helium leakage, a significant issue with the PBMR, requires prototype testing to be solved. How long before they can get this going?

●The shutdown of the German THTR-300 due to graphite dust being released will have to be addressed by the latest reactor design.

The above listed points are technical concerns that hopefully both parties have done their homework on. If they have been addressed then I don't share Yelland's belief that Koya Capital, is being reckless. It is private money after all and they carry the risk.

The PBMR holds the advantage of providing industrial heat alongside electricity generation. However, proponents should acknowledge its drawbacks, which is the lack of long-term data. Although there are several experimental reactors, there is only one known commercial prototype worldwide, located in China, and in Western countries like the United States, the first reactor of its kind may not materialize before 2028.

Stratek Global should be able to solve these challenges, by drawing from the experience of others who worked on similar projects across the world. The American Nuclear Safety Regulator hopefully has addressed many of these questions when they notably approved the startups Kairos and X-Energy’s designs (that employs many South African scientists and engineers).

Stratek’s manpower will, additionally, have to be significantly expanded and it would be a good idea to invite many of them home.

Dr. Kemm is likely cognizant of these challenges and hopefully he will also dispel his critics' latest concerns.

As a disclaimer to this article, I have previously interviewed Dr. Kelvin Kemm and I have met him on more than one occasion, but I have no formal financial relationship with him, Stratek Global, or the various parties involved.

Hügo Krüger is a YouTube podcaster, writer and civil nuclear engineer with experience across the energy sector. He holds a BEng Civil Engineering and MSc Nuclear Civil Engineering.