The consortium behind proposals to build a full-scale demonstration pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) has reaffirmed support for the project following a feasibility study. However, a decision to pursue construction of the demonstration plant in South Africa – due to have been taken in November – has been delayed for up to 12 months to resolve a number of issues, mainly concerning the turbine design and the graphite core internals. The consortium members are South Africa’s Eskom, its South African partner the International Development Corporation, BNFL and Exelon.

The Vice President of Exelon Generation’s international projects, Ward Sproat, said that, as a result of the feasibility study, “all four partners feel that we’ve made sufficient progress to stick with the project.” He confirmed that Exelon still hoped to keep to its original schedule for US licensing of the PBMR, submitting an early site permit application next year with the aim of starting construction in 2005. However, he added: “There are issues regarding whether or not we can license (a PBMR) in the US. We’re talking to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but it’s (a process) that’s not going to wend its way through until about the fourth quarter of next year.” Mr Sproat told the US House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee earlier this year that Exelon’s application for a combined construction and operating licence is scheduled for 2003, following the completion of detailed PBMR design in South Africa. If Exelon’s own review of the feasibility study was favourable, the company did “not intend to wait for the completion of the demonstration plant in South Africa to begin the licensing process to build a number of PBMRs” in the USA. Mr Sproat warned that the financial burden on small, modular plants of existing “inappropriate regulations” could make the economics “untenable”. In addition, the licensing process to be followed for the PBMR “has never fully been utilised” – which would mean a “steep learning curve” for the NRC and Exelon leading to high costs and delays. Exelon would also need to work with NRC staff to develop a technical licensing framework because existing regulations were written for light water reactors. Exelon believes the consortium will invest at least of $600 million to make the reactor commercially viable, with Exelon investing a significant additional amount to license and build the first PBMRs. However, the utility says it is appropriate that the US government pays for technical expertise that does not currently exist in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or in national laboratories.

l The South African government is supportive of expanding nuclear capacity through the building of modular 110 MW PBMRs and it is hoped that companies will find that the modular reactor has strong export potential. In addition to the United States, it believes that the United Kingdom, China, Indonesia, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia might all be interested in buying reactors. South Africa currently has a nuclear capacity of 1840 MW at the Koebergy nuclear plant in Western Cape.