SA shows lack of foresight after it gave Pebble Bed Modular Nuclear Reactor tech the cold shoulder

Hlathi Zak Madela is an executive director of the South African Energy Forum.

Hlathi Zak Madela is an executive director of the South African Energy Forum.

Published May 24, 2023


By Hlathi Madela

Developments in Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs) technologies are receiving huge investments around the world. South Africa was the world leader until its Pebble Bed Modular Nuclear Reactor (PBMR) technology was lost.

Losing this prime position in this technology clearly demonstrates the lack of foresight. 

Our government decided not to fund its further development and completion. 

This has resulted in South Africa being relegated to being the global spectator.

As a consequence, its engineers and scientists that remained in South Africa have become alienated, and those who left are held in high regard as global leaders in this technology, which they displayed with unparalleled proficiency.

But before spending much time soliloquising, I have to answer the question of what SMR is. SMRs are Nuclear Power Reactors that produce electricity of between 10 MWe (Megawatts electric) to a maximum of 300 MWe. Anything above 300 MWe is classified as a large-scale nuclear power reactor.

Leading economies also develop up to 350 MWe nuclear power reactors, classified under SMRs category. First world countries are competing to be the best in SMR technologies, which South Africa was once at the forefront of just under two decades ago. A lot of financial investments are deployed in SMRs Programmes by many first world countries.

These include the US Department of Energy (DoE) and their private companies. Among the latter are Bill Gates's TerraPower SMR company. In Canada, the UK, Denmark and South Korea, this technology has become very important.

The DoE is funding a South African group-owned X-Energy SMRs. In this regard, they have been given land on which to build and construct their first SMR in the US.

On industrialisation potential in converting Eskom ageing coal power stations:

South Africa should consider the conversion of the ageing Eskom coal power stations by replacing them with SMRs. This would not only maintain the economic activity in the coal towns but would also foster the development of high-tech industries to support the manufacturing Industry and the development of new skills.

The experience in Western Nations, for example, the SMRs drive new industries, jobs and delivery of clean technology. Canada has identified 389 Sites for SMRs. The US has identified 270 sites, and the UK is developing its SMRs programme by Rolls Royce, with firm level plans to power the UK with SMRs. These countries have also identified South Africa as a market in which to sell their SMRs. They also aim at the African continent.

China National Nuclear Corporation successfully constructed, connected and synchronised to their grid a twin 210 MWe (Electrical Power) high temperature gas reactor (HTR) called HTR-PM in December 2021. This twin 210 MWe SMR is an exact replica on our South African Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), which is a 160 MWe that our government has remained undecided on.  This is even in face of the huge global investments committed to SMRs programmes by the West and China.

Not only are the developed world making strides, but the developing nations are, too, in SMRs technology. For example, Indonesia is planning to power a fertiliser plant by using a Danish-developed SMR. This could be extended to deliver 1 Gigawatt into their grid.

And many African countries, including Ghana, are considering nuclear technologies. Ghana is at a stage where their nuclear regulatory environment is progressing at an advanced pace. South Africa runs the risk of losing the edge it had in this cutting-edge SMRs technology that most are banking in the world today.

It is no secret that it is the African engineers and scientists who want South Africa's 160 MWe PBMR Project to be revived. There have also been calls from AfriForum, Build One South Africa and the EFF to add nuclear power to the mix.

However, up to now, the government has not made any comment regarding any potential restart of the programme, nor has it made it known why this should not be considered as a viable option for South Africa and maybe some African partners.

If we do not revive our PBMR Project (the 160 MWe Machines), the US, the UK, Canada, South Korea and the Chinese will come to South Africa in around Year 2028 to 2035 to sell us their SMRs to replace our Eskom coal power stations in the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces because our own PBMR is sitting idling in Pretoria, Pelindaba at Necsa’s Nuclear Facility Site.

*Ladies and gentlemen. Sadly this is the plight of being an African engineer and scientist in South Africa.

Hlathi Zak Madela is an executive director of the South African Energy Forum. He is an engineering graduate from Wits.