Pebble Bed Reactor Funding Melts Down  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The Smirking Chimp reports that the South African government is giving up funding pebble bed reactor research - Another feeble-headed nuke drops dead.

As the "reactor renaissance" desperately demands new billions from a lame duck Congress, one of its shining stars has dropped dead. Other much-hyped "new generation" plans may soon die with it.

For years "expert" reactor backers have touted the "Pebble Bed" design as an "inherently safe" alternative to traditional domed light water models. Now its South African developers say they're done pouring money into it.

The Pebble Bed's big idea was to create a critical mass of uranium particles coated with silicon carbide and encased in graphite. These intensely radioactive "pebbles" would seethe in a passive container, cooled by helium. Without the need for a containment dome, the super-heated mass would produce both heat and electricity. Touted as needing no back-up emergency systems to prevent a major disaster, the plan was to mass-produce these "smaller, simpler" reactors for use throughout the industrial world.

Pebble Bed technology originated in Germany. But it was adopted and developed by the government of South Africa. For some it was a source of pride that a "developing" nation had become a significant player in the so-called nuclear renaissance.

But the South African government has now cut off funding for the project. Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan has told the National Assembly that "sobering realities" included the lack of working demonstration model, the lack of customers, the lack of a major investment partner and the impending demand for $4.2 billion in new investment capital. As deadlines consistently slipped, Westinghouse withdrew from the project in May.

South African officials say the US and China are still working on the technology. But economic realities make any tangible future Pebble Bed as a major source of new energy largely imaginary. Critics also worry that without a containment dome, the pebble beds would be vulnerable to small groups of terrorists with simple shell-lobbing mortars. And that critical metal components would not perform as needed under the intense stresses of heat and radiation.

The death of the Pebble Bed has considerable significance. For nearly two decades reactor backers have counted it in the imaginary fleet of new generation reactors coming to save us. Its alleged bright future would make it just one of the many new nuclear technologies that would render solar and wind energy unnecessary.

3 comments

I get the impression that the IFR is about to hit the mainstream. Eats nuclear waste and bombs and could run the world for 500 years just on today's waste! Yet it only needs a few more years research to fully commercialise.

Move over pebble beds: we need more sweet plutonium than you guys offer. (And no, the P from IFR's can't be used in making bombs as it's not pure).

Is this some sort of mental virus people contract ?

These advanced reactor stories are just fantasies - the sector is 60 years old and the technology has hardly evolved - its an expensive and dirty dinosaur and no amount of dreaming is going to make it a particularly important factor in the coming decades.

Nuclear seems to be a case of "same shit, different asshole" to me. Why go towards a centralized, polluting (uranium mining harms ecosystems AND harms populations near the mining) system built on a finite resource. A plan to reduce our energy output (Europe only uses a third of the energy the US uses and actually maintains a better quality of life, I'd imagine we could probably only use something like a fifth of our energy output and still maintain a relatively advanced society, albeit probably growing a lot slower) and supply what is truly needed with mostly renewables seems more sound to me.

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