South Africa Invests in Nuclear Power

South Africa has suffered crippling electricity blackouts and is looking to nuclear energy to solve its power problems. Currently South Africa has the only nuclear power plant on the continent of Africa. It is planning to build a second plant.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

On this day that a leading Iranian vowed that his country would keep enriching uranium, we'll talk about why some countries have chosen another course.

We begin in South Africa, which gave up its nuclear weapons years ago. At the same time, South Africans are backing a new kind of small, nuclear reactor to provide power. This effort is driven by concerns about global warming and about the reliability of other energy supplies.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Cape Town.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

The smoke stacks from the Pelindaba Research Laboratories poke up mysteriously behind a series of hills on the high plains outside Pretoria.

Pelindaba is the Los Alamos of South Africa. It was here that the apartheid government built South Africa's nuclear weapons. The labs were also instrumental in the development of Africa's only commercial nuclear power station, the Koeberg Nuclear Plant outside Cape Town.

Much of Pelindaba has now fallen into decay: beige cement office buildings sit empty; tar roads have been overrun by planes, grass, and scrubby bushes. Despite being dramatically scaled down from its heyday, nuclear research continues here.

Mr. ROBERT PETERS(ph) (Nuclear Scientist, South Africa): We have started, about five months ago, using uranium in this laboratory. And our initial quality control results indicate that we are getting good results.

BEAUBIEN: Robert Peters oversees the creation of fuel spheres from a new type of nuclear plant South Africa is trying to build. The spheres are central to the pebble bed reactor's design. Each one is about the size of a billiard ball. They're gray and made mostly of graphite.

Each sphere also contains nine grams of uranium oxide, which serves as the fuel for the power plant. There are no metal parts in the fuel assembly, and thus, Peters says, it won't melt down at high temperatures.

Mr. PETERS: Its all ceramics. If you look at normal fuel it has a lot of metal components that would start melting at 13, 14, maybe 1500. We put a fresh new furnace that runs about 2,000 degrees C. No problem.

BEAUBIEN: Its creators claim the pebble bed reactor is inherently safe because in this design, when the core heats up above the normal operating temperature, or when the helium coolant disappears, the nuclear reaction slows down. Thus, theoretically, it moderates itself and prevents a runaway nuclear reaction.

Johan Slabber is the chief Technology Officer at PBMR, the company that's developing the reactor.

Dr. JOHAN SLABBER (Chief Technology Officer, PBMR): The heat production and the thermal characteristics of the core are such that the maximum temperature will never be exceeded.

BEAUBIEN: PBMR plans to start construction next year on the world's first commercial pebble bed plant on the grounds of the Koeberg Nuclear Station. The pebble bed reactor produces only about one-tenth of the electricity of a conventional nuclear plant. Slabber says it offers the possibility of a network of small, local nuclear power stations.

Dr. SLABBER: This electricity is sufficient for certain niche markets inside a country like South Africa, where we would like to distribute our electricity generation to areas where there are the needs.

BEAUBIEN: He says the high temperatures generated by these plants could also be used for industrial processes and even to desalinate water on a commercial scale. However, the pebble bed design actually produces more radioactive waste per megawatt than a conventional nuclear plant.

Maya Aberman, an environmentalist with the Earth Life Africa in Cape Town, is also skeptical of PBMR's claims that their reactor is safe.

Ms. MAYA ABERMAN (Environmentalist, Earth Life Africa): I think it's important to remember other times in history when it has been said that it's impossible for so and so to happen. It was impossible for the Titanic to sink. So, I think that as inherently safe as anything can be, that doesn't prevent the possibility of a serious accident. And unfortunately, the magnitude of serious accidents when one's talking about nuclear power are very serious.

BEAUBIEN: However, the pebble bed nuclear design is attracting international attention. British Nuclear Fuels has invested in PBMR, and the Chinese are developing a similar reactor of their own.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Cape Town.

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