Civil rights organisation Afriforum is launching its own electricity generation company, with plans to deploy South Africa’s first Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR).
Kriel said Afriforum was already in discussions with several roleplayers in the energy industry to increase the role played by private power in South Africa. That includes South African-born venture capitalist André Pienaar, a shareholder in PBMR company X-Energy.
X-Energy is currently building the world’s first commercial-scale advanced nuclear reactor in the state of Washington.
It forms part of the US Department of Energy’s $2.5-billion (R43-billion) Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). The ARDP will see the construction of X-Energy’s first 320MW XE-100 power plant, consisting of four 80MW PBMRs. The helium-cooled, high-temperature reactors are designed to provide small-scale power generation with faster deployment times and better safety than large conventional reactors.
The PBMR comprises a steel pressure vessel with a graphite core filled with enriched uranium dioxide fuel “pebbles”, each roughly the size of a pool (billiards) ball. A Tristructural Isotropic (Triso) coating creates an airtight seal around the uranium kernel to retain fission products and gases produced during operations, allowing the plant to be built within 500 metres of factories or urban areas. “The fresh pebbles are loaded in the reactor like a gumball machine, and helium is pumped down through the pebble bed to extract the heat into a steam generator that produces electricity,” the US Department of Energy explains.
“The reactor continuously refuels by adding fresh pebbles daily in at the top, as older ones are discharged from the bottom of the core.”
“Each pebble remains in the core for a little more than three years and are circulated through the core up to six times to achieve full burnup.”
Through gravity feeding, the pebbles are continuously rotated to create heat. The heat converts water into steam that turns a turbine. X-Energy has also signed a contract with the US military to supply it with Xe-mobile micro reactors for remote operations.
Ironically, the earliest forms of PBMR were developed by a team of South Africans as part of Eskom’s PBMR company. The utility planned to construct a new nuclear power station in Duynefontein near Koeberg that would use the technology. However, after ten years of development and ballooning costs, the project was terminated due to a lack of investment.
X-Energy scooped up one of these team members , Eben Mulder ,who now serves as the company’s chief scientist. Its lead reactor developer is another South African ,Martin van Staden ,a North-West University and University of Johannesburg alumnus.
Kriel said although renewable power sources like wind and solar were valuable resources for South Africa’s future, their outputs were highly intermittent.
As many South African energy experts have also pointed out, South Africa requires more reliable baseload capacity that fluctuates less and can be dispatched on demand for peak consumption periods.
But the two main types of power generation which typically allow for this , coal and gas , are growing increasingly unpopular due to their high levels of carbon emissions. In the case of PBMR, Afriforum’s primary role will be to draw the necessary investors and expertise for local development.
Afriforum said nuclear power generation is emission-free, while radioactive waste disposal techniques have advanced significantly to ensure minimal environmental impact , in terms of space occupied and safety. In the case of X-Energy’s Triso-X fuel, the pebbles are placed directly into dry casks and stored on-site, without requiring interim or active cooling.
Plan includes other areas of focus
Although Afriforum said the development and construction of a PMBR plant in South Africa could take a decade, the organisation was also working on short and medium-term solutions to help fix the power crisis.
For the first phase of its programme , dubbed Projek AfriEnergie , the organisation wants to force the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) to relax certain regulations on power generation. In addition, the first phase will also see the introduction of a consumer guide with advice and supplier details for installing embedded home generation like solar power.
The second phase will focus on helping cities and towns reduce their reliance on Eskom for electricity supply. Kriel said the Mafube municipality in the Free State has been able to supply the town of Frankfort with privately-generated electricity for ten years.
Kriel acknowledged there was no quick fix for the country’s energy crisis, but said civil society and the private sector could play a critical role in a future “on the other side” of Eskom.