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Cablegate: Nuclear Power: Big Dreams for Small Pebbles - Pbmr

VZCZCXRO8218
RR RUEHBZ RUEHDU RUEHJO RUEHMR RUEHRN
DE RUEHSA #3747/01 2971534
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 241534Z OCT 07
FM AMEMBASSY PRETORIA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2398
INFO RUCPDC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC
RHEBAAA/DEPT OF ENERGY WASHINGTON DC
RUCNSAD/SOUTHERN AF DEVELOPMENT COMMUNITY COLLECTIVE
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 0683
RUEHRL/AMEMBASSY BERLIN 0555
RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA 0565
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON 1342
RUEHMO/AMEMBASSY MOSCOW 0690
RUEHOT/AMEMBASSY OTTAWA 0519
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS 1201

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 PRETORIA 003747

SIPDIS

SIPDIS
SENSITVE

STATE PLEASE PASS USAID
STATE PLEASE PASS USGS
DEPT FOR AF/S, ISN, EEB/ESC AND CBA
DOE FOR T.SPERL, G.PERSON, A.BIENAWSKI, M.SCOTT, L.PARKER

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ENRG TRGY SENV KNNP PREL EINV SF
SUBJECT: NUCLEAR POWER: BIG DREAMS FOR SMALL PEBBLES - PBMR

REF: A) Pretoria 3507
B) Pretoria 3078
C) Pretoria 3012

Not for internet distribution

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: South Africa's Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR)
new nuclear technology will play a key role in the SAG decision to
significantly increase nuclear power generation in the country over
the next 20 years. The country will face challenges in securing
skills and investment to implement its ambitious program. PBMR is a
leading contender for high-temperature, gas-cooled Next Generation
Nuclear Plants, in cooperation with Westinghouse and the DOE Idaho
National Laboratory. Embassy joined an Idaho National Laboratory
mission to check the status of PBMR. End Summary.

--------------------------------------------- --
Our Smart Nuclear Guys Talk to Their Smart Guys
--------------------------------------------- --

2. (SBU) Energy Officer and Energy Specialist joined a delegation
from the DOE Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to visit test
facilities of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) on October 19
and 22. INL is working on the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP)
and Generation IV nuclear reactor for which PBMR is a leading
contender because of high efficiency, attractive economics, modular
size, and enhanced passive safety features.

3. (U) The PBMR is a High Temperature Reactor (HTR) with a
closed-cycle, gas turbine power conversion system. The fuel
consists of low enriched uranium triple-coated "kernels" contained
in molded graphite spheres, the so-called "pebbles". Each fuel
pebble contains 9 grams of nine percent uranium-235. About 450,000
of these tennis-ball-sized spheres circulate through the reactor.
Helium coolant circulates among the reacting spheres and heats up to
a temperature of 900 degrees centigrade in order to remove the heat
generated by the nuclear reaction. The heated gas drives a
power-turbine-compressor to generate electricity and then passes
through a high efficiency recuperator. PBMR is designed to be
inherently safe with passive features that assure no danger of
overheating, meltdown, or release of fissile materials.

4. (SBU) The host of the INL visit, PBMR Chief Technology Officer
Dr. Johan Slabber, was an early champion of the vision of acquiring
the pebble bed technology from the Germans, eventually convincing
state electricity company Eskom to form PBMR Ltd in 2000. Current
investors are the South African Government (SAG), Eskom, the
Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) of South Africa, and
Westinghouse, which took over the 15 percent share previously held
by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL). Original investor U.S. firm Exelon
ended its investment for strategic reasons.

-----------------------------------
South African Government Commitment
-----------------------------------

5. (SBU) The South African Government has embraced ambitious plans
to double its electricity capacity from current 42,000 MW to 82,000
MW by 2025, documented by publication of its draft nuclear energy
policy and reassessment of its overall energy policy (reftels). In
addition, 25 percent of total capacity will be generated by nuclear
power. This will constitute about 18,000 MW of nuclear new-build,
of which Westinghouse and Areva of France are competing for the
first tranche of 3,000 MW (reftel B). If realized, South Africa's
new nuclear build will represent 17 percent of the world's
anticipated nuclear new build over the same period. The SAG is
contemplating PBMR technology for up to 5,000 MW of its nuclear new
build. The SAG's nuclear energy policy is also premised on
beneficiating its prodigious uranium reserves, about 10 percent of
the world's supply, as well as maintaining security of fuel supply
by considering developing fuel enrichment capability. Despite the
huge investment contemplated, South Africa has significant existing
infrastructure with one nuclear power plant, a respected National
Nuclear Regulator (NNR), the Nuclear Energy Company of South Africa
(NECSA) at Pelindaba, waste disposal facilities, and extensive
expertise and training capacity.


PRETORIA 00003747 002 OF 002


6. (SBU) The Embassy/INL team visited PBMR test facilities at
Northwest University and M-Tech in Potschefstroom on October 19.
These included the Pebble Bed Micro Model, the Heat Transfer Test
Facility (high pressure and high temperature testing of thermal
properties of gas coolant), and hydrogen hub testing. The team
visited additional PBMR testing facilities at NECSA-Pelindaba near
Pretoria on October 22. The pilot fuel plant and kernel laboratory
is engaged in detailed research and analysis of the pebble spheres.
Chief Technology Officer Dr. Johan Slabber said he expects to
imminently secure the license to allow them to use uranium instead
of zirconium for testing. The Helium Test Facility is a full-scale
facility for testing the circulation of the pebble spheres within
high temperature helium gas. This facility was constructed by South
African nuclear supplier company IST-Nuclear, which was recently
acquired by Westinghouse. IST-Nuclear will become Westinghouse
Electric S.A. on November 1.

7. (SBU) Pelindaba is also the former site of South Africa's
weapons and uranium enrichment program, voluntarily dismantled in
the late 1980's. The SAG has since signed and adhered to all
non-proliferation conventions. The SAG is in the process of
converting the existing Safari Research Reactor at Pelindaba from
high enriched uranium to low enriched uranium. The highly secure
Pelindaba facility declined in the years following decommissioning
of the weapons facilities, but PBMR is participating in a
renaissance of the facility.

-------------------
Next Steps for PBMR
-------------------

8. (SBU) PBMR aims to develop and market small-scale modular
high-temperature reactors both in South Africa and internationally.
Since 2004, the SAG has allocated significant funding to the project
and Minister of Public Enterprises Alec Erwin has voiced the SAG
intent to develop up to 5,000 MW of PBMR reactors in the country
(perhaps 20-30 PBMR reactors of 165 MW each). The company plans to
begin construction of the demonstration reactor project at Koeberg
near Cape Town in 2009 for operation in 2013. PBMR is working
closely with the national regulator NNR for staged licensing of
construction/installation, fuel loading, operation, and
decommissioning. The PBMR design, materials, and construction
replicate previous German engineering in order to expedite
regulatory approval. Demo plant client Eskom is completing a
comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), subsequent to
the Cape High Court ruling in favor of anti-nuclear Earthlife Africa
to set aside an older approved EIA. PBMR officials are confident
that building the demo plant will not face further delays, noting
that South Africa's public is not generally opposed to nuclear
power.

9. (SBU) COMMENT: The PBMR team takes great pride in the importance
of their work and how it fits into South African economic
development. Like both Eskom and Sasol, the company plans to staff
up significantly, from current 1,000 employees to 5,000 staff. As
remarked recently by Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, South Africa
faces a skills shortage. Department of Minerals and Energy Chief
Director: Nuclear Tseliso Maqubela recently told Economic Counselor
that South Africa hopes to regain South African nuclear engineers
working in the U.S. (i.e., at DOE facilities). On the other hand,
the Embassy/INL team was struck by the knowledge and enthusiasm of a
number of young black post-grad technicians at PBMR test facilities,
supplementing the generally older white scientists. There is a
shortage of nuclear engineering skills in South Africa and the
situation will worsen as many older engineers are expected to retire
over the next ten years. The targeted massive increase in
electricity investment and supply is coming at a critical moment for
Eskom, which faces capacity shortfalls, a slim reserve margin, and
the need to periodically practice "load-shedding" due to
under-investment in electricity capacity, partly because of past
delays in SAG plans for new plants. Now there is full agreement
between the SAG and the private sector of the need to move forward
quickly.

BOST

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