The Nuclear Route

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The South African government has announced intentions to invest in research and construction of nuclear-generated power networks over the next 20 years.

Alec Erwin, South Africa's Minister of Public Enterprises, announced these intentions at a high temperature reactor conference in Johannesburg on October 2. If successful, the project will bring fully developed technology and investment to South Africa.

Currently, South Africa has only two nuclear reactors generating a mere 6% of the country's total power. The two reactors are located at the Koeberg nuclear plant just outside of Cape Town. Conversely, over 87% of South Africa's energy still comes from coal-fired plants, which the government has indicated is not sustainable.

Electricity use in South Africa has been an issue for the government since the 1980s. The countries main producer of energy, Eskom, provides approximately 95% of South Africa's electricity and more than 60% of energy to the continent of Africa.

It is estimated that by the year 2008, consumption of electricity in South Africa and surrounding countries will outgrow production, leading to inevitable mass power shortages and outages. Both the private and public sectors have come to the realisation that alternative sources of energy need to be explored.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka stated in a speech to parliament, while she served as minister of minerals and energy, that the future of the country's energy would involve private-sector involvement in the construction of power stations and nuclear power facilities.

South Africa intends to construct 20 to 30 Pebble Bed Modular Reactors (PBMR), that would generate an estimated 5000 megawatts of energy each year. The goal is to have the first fully commissioned reactor functioning by 2013/2014.

PBMR use fusion technology in which the fuel is incapable of melting. According to nuclear-power trade groups, these reactors should be more powerful, safer, less expensive to construct and operable for up to 60 years. "With the pebble bed reactor, the fuel is easily disposed of, and it can be divorced absolutely from the bomb industry," said British physicist James Martin. A prototype of the PBMR has already been constructed in Beijing.

The PBMRs are based on the initial design of German Professor Rudolf Shulten. The South African Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Company, which receives a majority of its funding from the government, Eskom, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the US nuclear giant Westinghouse, is now expanding upon Shulten's initial research to actually develop the reactors and put them into use.

According to the company, the South African reactors will be designed to also desalinate seawater, which will address another challenge - finding sources of fresh water.

These reactors will not only serve as a new source of energy and water for South Africa, but also as a significant export item for the country. The export revenue of the RBMR is estimated to be at R8bn ($1.2bn) per year, and could potentially create up to 57,000 jobs in the surrounding regions.

The PBMR plans have not gone without opposition. Many opponents have indicated that Eskom and the Pebble Modular Reactor Company solely focus on the positive aspects of such nuclear systems. The negatives, according to some pundits, include risks associated with the reactor design, excess waste produced, and the handling, transport and long-term storage of spent fuel.

In 2005, the environmental group Earthlife Africa won a court appeal requiring further hearings on the Koeberg nuclear reactors and the construction of similar reactors. A second round of environmental hearings is currently under way.

Proponents of the PBMR system acknowledge some of these concerns, but point out that nuclear energy is the only power source that explicitly factors the estimated costs for waste containment and plant decommissioning into its overall cost. This is not, according to PBMR advocates, taken into account when forecasting costs for fossil fuel plants..

A study conducted by the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Company concluded that not only was the technology viable; it also found that PBMR power plants represented the "lowest levelised cost option in 11 of 14 major markets."

Regardless of disagreements from both sides, Erwin has confirmed that the PBMR project is now "factored into our future energy planning, and we are negotiating a major intention-to-purchase agreement between Eskom and the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Company."

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