Thursday, September 17, 2009

United States indicates its willingness to support Pebble Bed Modular Reactor research

By: Terence Creamer
Published: 16 Sep 09

The US government would support South African efforts to research the pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) nuclear technology as part of the multilateral next-generation nuclear plant and very high temperature gas reactor programmes, following the signing of a bilateral nuclear agreement earlier this week.

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu and South Africa's Energy Minister Dipuo Peters initialled the so-called "Agreement on Cooperation in Research and Development of Nuclear Energy" in Vienna, Austria, on September 14. The two officials were in the European capital to participate in the fifty-third general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In a statement issued on Wednesday by the US Embassy in Pretoria, the American government indicated that the agreement would facilitate cooperation in the area of advanced nuclear energy systems and that the PBMR would likely be an area of "specific" cooperation.

The deal would also augment efforts to promote and maintain nuclear science and engineering infrastructure and skills, while research and development collaboration would focus on advanced technologies that could improve the cost, safety, and proliferation resistance of nuclear power systems.

The signing followed on from recent bilateral discussions, involving senior officials from both countries, which took place in Pretoria in August. These talks reportedly covered a broad range of nuclear energy, nonproliferation, and disarmament issues, following dialogue on the issues between Presidents Barack Obama and Jacob Zuma at the Group of eight (G-8) Summit in July.

It was not immediately apparent what the precise implications were for the PBMR Company, which was currently working on a new design for a demonstration plant, and which had also indicated its desire to evolve into South Africa's nuclear engineering and design authority should the country move ahead with the deployment of advanced third-generation pressure water reactors (PWRs).

The future of the PWR programme was currently uncertain, given severe funding challenges at State utility Eskom. In fact, the procurement process, which initially involved US-linked Westinghouse (also a shareholder in the PBMR Company) and Areva of France, was halted in late 2008 and had not been restarted, despite that fact that it now fell under the direct authority of the energy department.

It was also not clear whether the agreement had any implications for South Africa's possible re-entry into the area of nuclear fuel production. The South African government had indicated that it might be keen resume enrichment activities as part of uranium beneficiation aspirations. But this was a highly contested area, owing to nonproliferation concerns, and would require support for IAEA members and powerful countries such as the US.

In fact, the US statement emphasised the important role South Africa could play in building international consensus and momentum among nuclear and non nuclear weapons States in the area of nonproliferation and disarmament.

"As the only State to have developed and then given up its nuclear weapons, joining the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state, South Africa possesses unique credibility and perspective on these issues. The US looks forward to working with South Africa at the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010 in Washington," the statement concluded.

This article was originally published by Engineering News Online

No comments: