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Koeberg nuclear plant as seen from Melkbosstrand. Picture: SHELLY CHRISTIANS
Koeberg nuclear plant as seen from Melkbosstrand. Picture: SHELLY CHRISTIANS

The updated integrated resource plan (IRP 2023) includes small modular nuclear reactors as part of SA’s bid to address the continuing energy challenges.

The IRP is an important policy document for the country’s energy planning. It may be time to look at the not-so-distant past and reflect on what happened to SA’s own high-temperature, small nuclear reactor project, the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR).

A new book published by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra),Why Innovations Live or Die: SA’s innovation system, offers some relevant insight on that and other technological projects.

SA has a long history with nuclear energy, as illustrated by its Koeberg power plant, which is still in operation 40 years after being commissioned, and with extensions proposed in the updated IRP.

It was therefore not surprising in 1998 when the country announced that it was embarking on a project to produce small modular nuclear reactors. But the PBMR project was later shut down when government withdrew its funding in 2012. Had the PBMR project succeeded it would have ensured the country could meet its energy needs by using small, locally produced modular nuclear reactors.

The technology, developed as a fully owned subsidiary of Eskom Enterprises, included a small, high-temperature reactor that uses helium gas as a coolant to remove heat, and produces small amounts of manageable nuclear waste.

The PBMR was attractive because small modular reactors can be built quickly and deployed incrementally to match increasing energy demand. However, the PBMR project was shut down without a single reactor or demonstration plant being built.

As Mistra’s book explains, the PBMR was one of various technological projects undertaken in SA as part of the country’s research and innovation strategy, which ultimately aimed to contribute to meeting its sustainable development goals. These projects seek to promote technological advancements within their respective value chains and fields.

Costly mistake

Some of these projects go on to succeed and some fail. But a lot of resources and taxpayer funds go into such projects — SA invested R7.4bn in the PBMR project, so it is important to distil lessons from it to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

The technology was questionable at the time since it had failed in Germany, from which SA obtained the patent. The failure to heed lessons from other countries was due to SA’s blinkered focus at the time on developing nuclear energy, and its determination to be a global player in the sector.

There was insufficient assessment by Eskom or other investors of why important milestones had been missed, such as producing a demonstration plant. Was it a case of unrealistic timelines, with a project that simply required more time to reach fruition, or was the project floundering for other, less-remediable reasons? Those were important questions that should have been addressed.

In addition, at that time the PBMR company had no established customer base and no committed buyer. A marketing strategy might have encouraged interest in the reactors from investors other than SA. That could have opened up additional sources of funding, and so helped manage budget constraints.

The demise of the PBMR project has resulted in SA missing out on being a global player in the production of small nuclear reactors. Other countries such as the US and China have continued to make progress in this technological area, and most of the nuclear scientists that worked on the PBMR have gone to work on similar projects in the US. Therefore, the country continues on the path of exporting valuable skills and importing technologies.

Resources allocated to the PBMR did not yield good returns as poor decisions were made regarding the management of the project and relevant technology. SA could have learnt from other countries that pursued this type of technology with limited success, or sought assistance from experts in the field to resolve some of the technical issues.

Networks needed

Many factors account for the difficulties faced with the PBMR, but the major issue was the failure to establish a global innovation network from which SA could benefit. That network could have comprised global players in the nuclear sector in academic institutions, and the private and public sectors.

In addition, private companies could have assisted in establishing investment sources and markets for the PBMR and thus helped ensure sufficient resources and time to fully develop the technology. This was vital, as SA lacked experience in developing high-temperature nuclear reactors. Though the PBMR was not an SA innovation, it did seek to promote technological advancements within the respective value chains involved and so may have fostered additional innovation.

Mistra’s new book examines lessons from highly promising research endeavours such as the PBMR that fell by the wayside. The book also interrogates the successes of SA innovations that have had a positive impact on people’s lives, and traces the journeys of, for example, undertakings such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the PBMR and Hydrogen SA (HySA) projects.

Various chapters question whether SA has what it takes to succeed in large technological missions such as the PBMR. The book considers the lessons for ongoing and future projects such as those contained in government’s updated IRP.

• Dr Xaba is researcher: knowledge economy & scientific advancement at Mistra. 

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