ESKOM turns to PLAN B

Robert Laing

Robert Laing

South Africa's R16billion investment in next-generation pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) technology does not seem to have borne fruit yet.

Eskom announced its second nuclear power station would be a "third-generation" pressurised water reactor (PWR) design supplied by either France's Areva or the US's Westinghouse.

Eskom has invited Areva to pitch a design called ERP (an acronym that originally stood for European Pressurised Reactor but changed to Evolutionary Power Reactor) against Westinghouse's AP1000 design.

These are the two designs that have been battling it out in China for the past two years.

Westinghouse won an $8 billion (R53,98billion) contract to build four AP1000-based nuclear power stations in China in 2006.

Areva lost the first order for Chinese nuclear plants because it declined to transfer expertise and knowledge.

But Areva then won the Chinese contract last year, worth about five billion euros (R50,17billion), to build two ERP-based plants located in Guangdong, in spite of sticking to its previous conditions.

Thanks to intervention by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who signed a $12billion (R80,96billion) deal, Areva secured contracts for a third and a fourth EPR unit.

These contracts have been won despite no EPR reactors being in operation yet.

Construction of a pilot ERP is under way at Finland's Olkiluoto nuclear power plant. It was scheduled to go online next year and was budgeted to cost 3,7billion euros (R37,13billion).

But after the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority found a number of safety-related design and manufacturing deficiencies last June, construction delays of at least two years and a cost overrun of up to 1,5 billion euros (R15,05billion) were reported.

Despite these problems, Areva has secured contracts to use the technology as the second unit in France's Flamanville nuclear power plant. Areva has also won contracts for ERP units in Abu Dhabi, the UK and the US besides China.

The ERP and AP1000 designs generate about 1GigaWatt per unit. Koeberg has two reactors, and Eskom appears to be planning a four-unit plant.

The PBMR seems to have been knocked out of the running because, although its smaller size of 165MegaWatt per unit is supposed to make it more attractive for developing countries, it is not cost-effective for the large plant that Eskom envisions.

Eskom said on its website environmental impact assessments are under way at five potential sites: Brazil near Kleinsee; Schulpfontein on the Northern Cape west coast; Duynefontain (Koeberg); Bantamsklip on the Western Cape coast; and Thyspunt on the Eastern Cape coast.