Monday, November 14, 2005

Power transfer for the people: Peeble reactors

Telegraph | Money | Power transfer for the people

The sprawling shanty towns that sit alongside the road from the airport to Cape Town suddenly snap to order as the city looms into view.

The narrow walkways and rickety huts that house the destitute black population untangle into neat rows of garden sheds, painted in pastel colours.

These gentrified ghettos are also hooked up to the grid. Electricity poles stand at street corners, running cables into every shed and delivering television and refrigeration.

The story is the same throughout South Africa. The state electricity company, Eskom, is busy bringing power to the poor. Even rural townships without running water are getting connected.

However, charging up the country comes at a heavy price. "We are running out of power rapidly," says Carin de Villiers, a spokesman for Eskom.

In the past year, there have been several blackouts in Johannesburg and the government is worried that it will be embarrassed by more during the 2010 World Cup.

Demand for electricity is rising at 3pc a year and Eskom thinks the country will run out of capacity for peak surges in two years. That means South Africa is currently staring at the problem that will hit the UK in 10 years' time - what sort of power station to build?

At the moment, 90pc of electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations near Johannesburg. These are cheap to run, since there are abundant supplies of coal. The problem is how to transmit the power. A quarter of the electricity is lost as it passes through the 870-mile cable to Cape Town, for example. Even worse, "there are only 20 years left until coal comes off the grid," says Eskom.

The green lobby wants power from renewable sources to fill the gap. Earthlife Africa says South Africa's "wind resources are abundant in many areas and our solar resources are among the best in the world". It also says wind turbines and solar panels can be built locally, where they are needed.

Eskom dismisses these claims as "Mickey Mouse", saying that it will be impossible to build enough renewable power plants to meet demand. At the moment, only five megawatts out of 40,000 are green.

In the poorer parts of the country, solar power is seen as a "second class" solution. It may power lights and perhaps a TV, but it cannot run a fridge.

Gas-fired power stations, which will form the bulk of the UK's power solution, are also out of consideration, since there is no obvious gas source. There are three kerosene-burning power stations but they are so expensive to run that Eskom uses them as sparingly as possible.

Instead, the government is considering a more radical solution - a fourth generation nuclear power station, known as a pebble bed reactor.

Experts say these reactors are safer, cleaner and cheaper. As an added bonus, they only take two years to build, unlike the 25 years it took to construct Dungeness B in Kent, for example.

The company making the reactors says they will deliver cheaper power than coal in some parts of South Africa because they can be built near the areas they supply. Internationally, it believes it will cost �20 per megawatt-hour, including the cost of decommissioning, far less than the �32.50 calculated for new-build nuclear plants in the UK.

The reactor was designed in Germany in the 1950s and a successful plant ran for 21 years. Then the disaster at Chernobyl turned public opinion against nuclear power and it shut down.

Pebble bed reactors are cooled with helium and use a novel type of fuel, which gives the technology its name. The pebbles are actually kernels of uranium, wrapped in layers of silicon and carbon, and then stuffed into a tennis ball-sized sphere of graphite.

Around 500,000 of these pebbles are rolled into the reactor and drop out of the bottom when they are used up.

Fans of the reactors say they are inherently safe from a meltdown because the fuel releases less energy when the temperature in the core rises above a certain level. The Chinese tested the theory by playing Russian roulette. They removed the safety controls and walked away from their pilot power station. It shut itself down within five minutes.

The individual reactors are small, each one generating 165MW, compared with the 1200MW that a standard nuclear station pumps out. However, they are modular, like bookshelves, and you can tack on more when you need them.

The makers think they should come in four-packs, producing up to 600MW. British Energy, the UK's nuclear operator, is interested in the reactors, say the makers.

They have also approached BP, since the high temperatures generated can be used for coal gasification and the production of hydrogen for fuel cells.

South Africa is at the forefront of the technology, but there is a mighty dragon behind it. China has decided to build around 30 pebble bed reactors. Chinergy, the Chinese company carrying out research into the project, has signed an agreement with its South African counterpart to discuss sharing suppliers.

It is early days and the construction of a pilot plant will not begin until 2007, if the Pebble Bed company passes its environmental impact assessment.

There are other hurdles. The company needs to raise $1.6billion (�900m) to build a full-sized plant.

Then there is a stumbling block that has arisen here in the UK. British Nuclear Fuels holds a 20pc stake in the company, which it has transferred to Westinghouse.

But Westinghouse is up for sale and the eventual buyers may decide to stop investing �150m a year. This is what happened three years ago when a new chief executive of Exelon, the largest nuclear operator in the United States, took the reins.

Jaco Kriek, the chief executive of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor company, is relaxed. He says he has talked with the five suitors for Westinghouse and is sure they support the project.

With a government desperate for a secure energy source, there are high hopes that pebble bed plants will be built. If they hurry, they might even be able to use them to make sure the residents of Cape Town's shanty slums get to watch the 2010 World Cup on television.


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