back to radiation | rat haus | Index | Search | tree

( ASCII text format )

The following is mirrored with the permission of Earthlife Africa from its source at:

An introduction to the
Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) programme

From the perspective of the Earthlife Africa Campaign of the Johannesburg and Cape Town branches

Nuclear Energy Costs the Earth

Contents: page 1 :

What is the PBMR programme?
What is a Pebble Bed Modular Reactor?
Do we need PBMR?
Export potential?

Contents: page 2:


Nuclear Power and Climate Change:

The nuclear industry is trying to sell itself as "clean" energy just because it compares favourably with fossil fuels in terms of the release greenhouse gasses, particularly Carbon Dioxide (CO2), that are causing potentially catastrophic global climate change.

At its source of electricity production, nuclear power does not produce any CO2. However nuclear power does produce CO2 in its whole fuel cycle, particularly during the mining and enrichment of nuclear fuel as well as during its transport and eventual disposal.

"The graph below, from the UK Royal Institute for International Affairs, shows that nuclear energy produces more CO2 than with renewable energy sources. ("Renewable Energy Strategies for Europe, Volume II, electricity systems and primary electricity sources", RIIA and Earthscan, London, 1997, Michael Grubb and Roberto Vigotti.)


Furthermore, the difference in CO2 production between nuclear and renewable energy sources is likely to increase. If nuclear were to be considered as a serious option for reducing CO2 emissions then there would need to be a massive construction program for nuclear. This would result in an increasing rate of consumption of high-grade uranium ore.

Consequently, lower grade uranium would have to be used, which would require significantly more energy to produce, which will increase the overall CO2 being produced by the nuclear fuel cycle.

Estimates for the International Panel on Climate Change suggest that within the European Continent, 1000 reactors would need to be operational in 2100, six times the current level. This would require the construction of around 2000 reactors in the next century, i.e. the completion of 20 reactors per year.

It is therefore impossible to imagine that nuclear power will ever play a significant role in reducing human impact on the world's climate." (Antony Froggatt, Nuclear Power - The End of the Road)

Clearly we should aim to do better than addressing one problem, climate change, while introducing or increasing another, release of radioactivity and the creation of dangerous wastes.

Even the World Bank, notorious for putting the interests of investors first, says that in developing countries "nuclear plants in the power sector would not be economic; they are large white elephants".


Policy and Process

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of PBMR was announced in April of 1999, but was effectively suspended after registration of Interested and Affected Parties, as Eskom failed to approve release of an initial briefing document.

This has afforded proponents the opportunity to try and canvas support, outside of a formal and accountable process. The consultants concerned believed that the process would start afresh in 2000 but as of February not even a Plan of Scoping had been formulated. The fact that Eskom has decided not to proceed with investigation of two of the three proposed sites for the `reference module', before formal consultation was initiated, has been claimed as a victory for public protest. It could be seen as an example of posturing and duplicity by Eskom, since it did not take place within the context of an EIA, which itself requires consideration of alternative sites as well as alternative technologies.

The production of fuel for the PBMR will be considered in a separate EIA, on the basis that it is undertaken by a different public enterprise, a project of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA), formerly the Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC). Correspondence from the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) has explicitly accepted the White Paper position that:

decisions to construct future nuclear power stations will be taken within the context of an integrated energy planning process with due consideration given to all relevant legislation, and the process will be subject to structured participation and consultation with all stakeholders.

Such an integrated energy planning process has been initiated but participation in the Steering Committee is "voluntary", i.e. only for parties who can pay their own way to meetings in Pretoria. Verbal presentations at the opening meeting suggest that sending out an invitation is considered to qualify as consultation.

Since a second meeting of the industry-dominated Steering Committee has yet to be announced and the process is expected to be completed by year end, it will be severely compromised and of limited value. While there are some involved who will struggle to achieve meaningful data collection and scenario development to inform future decision-making, in the big picture it appears to be little more than window-dressing.

The White Paper actually calls for aggressive development of renewable energy supply while providing only that the nuclear option should not be ruled out, but presidential favour for PBMR appears to be constraining efforts to give effect to this intent.

In the mean time proponents bolster momentum by any means, including taking advantage of the failing regulatory mechanisms and desperate financial straits of the Russian nuclear industry to conduct engineering tests far removed from South African scrutiny (The Star 26/8/99).

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was requested to investigate and advise on the technical and economic feasibility, safety and nuclear proliferation aspects of the PBMR. The report was expected in February 2000 but was not available as of end March. This is not an independent study since the IAEA is an institution whose mission includes promoting the use of atomic energy. It also has a history of manipulating statistics to obscure the health-effects of radiation.


Renewable Energy & Socio-economic considerations:

It is by now widely recognised that the `price' of electricity generation - i.e. the cost to Eskom - bears little relation to the actual cost to the nation of producing electricity, both in economic terms, due to direct and indirect subsidies, and in terms of human health and degradation of natural resources.

While nuclear projects are capital-intensive and require a high proportion of foreign expertise, renewable energy is labour-intensive. Rural electricity generation from wind and solar energy, either at household level or for small grid systems, empowers local communities and helps to combat urbanisation.

Internationally both solar thermal power, e.g. in Sacramento, California, and wind power, most notably in Denmark, expose the deception of claims by Eskom staff that renewable energy "cannot provide for base load" electricity generation.(Ref 7) While solar technologies are becoming increasingly efficient and cost-effective,

Even in terms of present technology, in sunny climates solar thermal electricity is the world's most flexible and compact source of grid electricity. It is also by far the largest - capable of delivering, from just 4% of South Africa's land surface, the total present world electrical generating capacity. (SESSA: `Solar Energy in Southern Africa')

Wind power technology is also improving rapidly (being directly competitive with fossil fuels in situations where full costs are taken into account) and past problems such as noise and impacts on bird-life have been resolved. Ten times more jobs are created by investments in Wind Power projects than in nuclear and the leading developers are willing and ready to undertake technology-transfer projects that will allow South Africa to develop the industry locally. Most of SA's wind resources are coastal, thus reducing dependence on highveld coal stations and long distance transmission. Wind farms produce no air pollution and most (90%) of the land needed can also be used for farming. See the South African Wind Energy Association website for more information

While Eskom claim to be co-operating with the Darling wind farm project in the Cape, they declined to enter into a power purchasing agreement that would allow the project to sell electricity onto the grid. For over 20 years the nuclear industry enjoyed the benefits of heavy subsidies, receiving between 85 and 90% of DME budget between 1985 and 1989.(Ref 8) This has advanced nuclear power at the expense of cleaner and more socially beneficial technology. It is time to move away from the practices of the apartheid era and to give effect to policies and legislation promulgated since 1994.

Ref 7 - Tony Stott at a meeting with Cape Metropolitan Council, 15/11/99
Ref 8 - For nuclear funding from 1971 - 1993 see `The South African nuclear fuel industry: History and prospects' by Thomas Auf Der Hyde, Energy and Development Research Centre, University of Cape Town (1993)

Additional material

Extracts from presentation by Themba Mdlalosa, Chief Director of the Nuclear and Renewable Energy Directorate in the Department of Minerals and Energy, to the parliamentary portfolio committee, on 10 March 2000:

"PBMR is an acronym for Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. This refers to a new kind of nuclear reactor which is still at a conceptual stage of development. This reactor is being developed by an ESKOM research group at a cost of a few billion rands."

"The company or rather the project has about 78 ESKOM employees and 97 contract staff. Thus the total number of people working on the project is 175. Of the 78 ESKOM workers only 32 are permanent and of these permanent workers 12 are white."

"It is noteworthy that the average salary for the ESKOM and contract staff is R468 571. So far, the whole research effort has been directed at a conceptual development of the PBMR. Thus the only tangible product of these efforts are a few either hand drawn or computer generated engineering drawings."

"The relatively limited public participation in the PBMR debate cannot be blamed entirely on the lack of an integrated energy plan. It is a fact that the DME was never involved at the inception of the PBMR project. We were presented with a fait accompli."

Extracts from a European Commission Report - Directorate-General for Energy WIND ENERGY - THE FACTS

"It is predicted that the annual growth rate [of the wind energy industry] will decrease from the 1997 value of 27% until 2002 when it will be about 18% per annum, after which it remains constant."

"In general, an increase in manufacturing output results in lower production costs. This cost decrease has been quantified at 15-20 % for each doubling of the installed capacity . . . applying the production/cost decrease rate as stated above for the period from 1996-2010 during which the production rate is likely to double about three times, suggests a cost decrease of 45-60%. The cost reduction potential for wind energy has been assessed by US-DOE (1990) and Risų (1996) and both studies support the values suggested in this report."

"Under current European market conditions the installation of each 1 MW of wind power creates jobs for between 15 and 19 people. In more labour intensive parts of the world this figure may double. Further jobs will also be created, including jobs in operation, service and maintenance."

"All power generation has environmental effects, those wind produces are minimal. About 99% of the land area within a typical wind farm site is available for agricultural or other use.

Land requirements: Generation Technology:
Land Required per GWh for 30 years(m2):

  • Geothermal 404
  • Wind 800 - 1335
  • Solar Photovoltaic 3237
  • Solar Thermal 3561
  • Coal 3642"

The following website provides extensive information on the international status of the international energy industry:

To campaigns >>

back to radiation | rat haus | Index | Search