Independent economic risk consultant Rob Jeffrey discusses the potential of building Pebble Bed Modular Reactors at old coal-fired power stations that are to be decommissioned.
The African Utility Week saw an important and welcome announcement. Eskom’s chief nuclear officer revealed that Eskom was reconsidering the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). For whatever reason, work on this ground-breaking project was stopped by the South African government in 2010. The latest work on the design indicates that this could be simplified and that build costs could be reduced. This may indeed be good news for the country.
Originally the successful development of the PBMR indicated that the economic impact on South Africa would have been extremely positive. Originally the PBMR design envisaged modules of approximately 200 MW per unit and would normally be designed to operate in pairs, or more, of such modules. No indications have yet been given on the design of the revised units but it is fair to assume it would lead to modular manufacturing with simpler on-site construction activity. This would result in reduced lead times for units coming on line.
Importantly, the PBMR is less water dependent and, being smaller, could be located strategically closer to high demand areas. The benefits are clear; if the units can be designed in such a way that they are economically competitive, there would be substantial local and international demand for such units, particularly in Africa and in Asia.
As set out in the Integrated Resources Plan (IRP), the initial traditional nuclear reactors would most probably be located at the coast. South Africa would need to build up its nuclear design, manufacturing and construction skills. A natural extension to this would be the PBMR and this would help strengthen and accelerate the entire nuclear localisation programme. The result would be that South Africa would become a leader in the two key energy technologies required for genuine economic growth and poverty reduction in the twenty-first century. The two are oil from coal, including possibly gas from coal, and secondly the PBMR design and build technology. The economic benefits to South Africa if the initial promise of this programme is realised would include: growth in local nuclear skills in respect of design, manufacturing and construction; an industry with both domestic and export potential; the creation of more than 100 000 jobs between 2030 and 2040; and an increase in gross domestic product (GDP), which could be greater than R40-billion a year or over 1% of GDP by 2040.
The PBMR could be built in old power stations that are due to be decommissioned. Not only does the PBMR installation offer consumers security of supply at very reasonable cost, but also by siting them in these locations they can immediately be reconnected onto the grid through existing grid installations. This would undoubtedly be one of the lowest cost energy solutions going forward. Where adequate supplies of suitable coal are still available, refurbishment of the power stations would almost certainly be the lowest cost solution. These power stations could be refurbished using the latest High Efficiency Low Emissions (HELE) coal technology. These power stations have very low pollution levels and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 30%. This places new or refurbished power stations on a very competitive basis with alternative energy sources including gas.
The PBMR project was cancelled in 2010. Unfortunately, valuable time has been irretrievably lost and the country lost most of the nuclear skills that were associated with the original project. However, South Africa still has a head start, and, assuming the design is as promising as indicated, the PBMR would greatly strengthen the view that nuclear should form one of the major elements of the energy mix going forward. It is now essential that decision-makers step back and carefully weigh up the major energy options in their entirety. Suggestions that South Africa can defer any decision on baseload electricity for an extended period of time are incorrect. It is essential that the country has time to construct and complete a baseload power generating capacity increase by 2024 if the country is to start growing at more acceptable growth rates of over 4% per annum by that date. This power supply must, if the re-industrialisation of South Africa is to become a reality, offer security of supply at competitive prices. If that does not occur, South Africa will face increasing unemployment and with it will come sociopolitical unrest. The required baseload capacity can only be supplied by nuclear and HELE clean coal fired power stations. Orders must, therefore, be placed by no later than March next year 2018.
Government should therefore put an immediate moratorium on all new energy build programmes including renewables. Decisions on wind farms cannot be taken on a one-on-one basis. Their use must be considered a long-term major change of technology for the country. The recent Western Cape High Court ruling was clear, “any large-scale procurement process undertaken by the state or its agencies must comply with Section 217 of The Constitution.” Wind farms form part of such a ruling. A build programme over twenty years is a large-scale procurement programme which to date has not been subject to the public and parliamentary scrutiny required in terms of this judgement. The planned build programme will cover over 10 000 km2 of land with wind farms which would radically affect more than 100 000 km2 of South African environment and landscape.
At last, environmental groups are becoming aware of the looming environmental catastrophe wind farms pose. An example has been the recent “Objection to the “strategic environmental assessment (SEA) for the wind and solar photovoltaic energy in south Africa” (2015)”. The objection was inclusive of the SEA process itself plus all the identified renewable energy development zones (REDZ), and the basic assessment procedure to be followed for environmental authorisation of wind and solar photovoltaic energy developments within such REDZs. Nine game reserves and nature reserves and other environmentalists were party to this submission. Birdlife South Africa, Vulpro and other environmental groups have also objected to ill-considered wind farm developments and their effects on birdlife. These objections have, until recently, generally been on specific wind farm developments. If the numbers were aggregated over the full envisaged area affected of over 100 000 km2 or more and multiplied by the years of operation then the number of irreplaceable bird species and other lifeforms to be lost could become devastatingly significant. Rough estimates indicate an aggregate of over half-a-million bird fatalities per year or over ten-million over the twenty-year life of these wind farms. Many could face extinction, which, apart from having obvious important ecological impacts, could also threaten the tourist industries amongst others.
A closer look is required by environmental and economic experts and by the public of all the technologies available. Such scrutiny is required before any decision is made and, thankfully, the judgement reinforces this process. The final decision on the optimal energy mix can only be made by experts and decision-makers based on efficiency, effectiveness, environmental and long-term socioeconomic impacts. It is certain that such studies would reveal the fundamental weakness of the current IRP and recommendations that are being made by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.