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Eskom tests appetite for ‘commercialisation’ of PBMR technologies, assets

14th February 2020 BY: Rebecca Campbell
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

State-owned electricity utility Eskom is seeking to dispose of its pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) technology and remaining assets.

It recently issued an expression of interest (EoI) regarding the “commercialisation of Pebble Bed Modular Reactor SOC (State-Owned Company), design, development, manufacturing, and construction of [a] small modular reactor and supply of Triso- (tristructural isotropic-) coated particle fuel for various reactor designs”.

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This initially caused a degree of confusion among some observers, who thought the utility was planning to reactivate the PBMR project. This led to the utility issuing a clarification. The EoI, it stated, “is intended to publicly solicit and . . . determine an interest from the market in the future takeover of the [PBMR] technology”. “While various options were explored to commercialise PBMR in the past, Eskom now intends to dispose of the company, providing the market with unrestricted options to pursue . . . The EoI is therefore strictly market research to determine the nature of interest and to define the scope of the request for offer/request for information that would be issued as a next step in the process.”

South Africa originally established PBMR in 1999 but it was put into care and maintenance, and all its staff retrenched, in 2010. It was reincorporated, into Eskom, in 2012.

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Eskom wants to move PBMR out of care and maintenance and commercialise it. Interested companies can propose taking an equity stake in PBMR itself, or investing in the PBMR reactor technology or the pebble fuel technology, or buying PBMR technology, or products developed by PBMR. They can also propose other possible transactions or relationships.

Whatever their proposals are, they must detail them in their EoI submissions. The closing date for these submissions is February 28. A briefing session was scheduled to be held at the Necsa Visitors Centre at Pelindaba, west of Pretoria, on February 12.

An Eskom document, which Engineering News & Mining Weekly has seen, points out that, when the project was active, it attracted international attention, with 23 countries attending a 2005 PBMR Supplier Conference. While the PBMR could be used, like conventional nuclear reactors, to generate electricity, it could also be used in other applications. These would include the provision of process heat for industry, the provision of high-pressure steam for specialist applications and the generation of hydrogen, or for water desalination.

Regarding hydrogen generation, the high temperatures that the PBMR could deliver would make the technology one of the few in the world – perhaps the only one in the world – that could produce hydrogen (by ‘splitting’ water into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen) without actually increasing pollution. Thus, it would facilitate the development of a future ‘hydrogen economy’.

It further noted that the PBMR’s Triso fuel pebbles, manufactured in the company’s fuel development laboratory, had delivered excellent results when tested in-reactor at both US and Russian facilities. These fuel pebbles could also be employed in a number of plant designs. Further, the technology could be used to produce pebbles using uranium oxide, uranium oxycarbide, mixed uranium-thorium or thorium fuel.

PBMR remains in a state of care and maintenance, and has preserved all its intellectual property, including all its designs, specifications, and reactor engineering calculations. It retains ownership of nearly 300 patents. It has also preserved its strategic assets. The large helium test facility is still operational, while the fuel development laboratory is still fully equipped. PBMR’s management system, which is ISO 9001- and ASME NQA-1-compliant, has been preserved.

Eskom affirmed in the document that the PBMR project could be restarted within a “relatively short” time. Alternatively, the technology could simply be “taken over” by a buyer and employed “elsewhere”. 

EDITED BY: Martin Zhuwakinyu Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
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