There are not only viruses but atoms in Africa, too


There are not only viruses but atoms in Africa, too

According to foreign estimates, 11% of the world reserves of uranium are located within the territory of South Africa which takes the 4th place after Australia, Kazakhstan, and Canada. In exchange for this much-in-demand resource, the country of the Third World received technologies enabling it to establish its own nuclear industry.
In the end of the World War Two, the United States and the Great Britain were in the critical need for uranium to build their nuclear weapons. South Africa became a supplier of raw materials for military programs. In return, the US provided training for South African nuclear experts and supplied a nuclear research reactor SAFARY along with the fuel. In 1948, a nuclear research agency was established in the Republic of South Africa. In the 1950s – 70s, development of the nuclear program of South Africa was supported by the United States. This being said, the program was not expressly military unlike in most other countries. Things have changed in the seventies when the world faced escalation in the conflict with Angola. The latter was supported by the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries. Cuba even sent a 15-thousand contingent of troops there. South African authorities decided that the only way to confront the threat was to demonstrate their nuclear weapons to the world. This period was marked with commencement of intensive cooperation with Israel. The latter was granted access to the uranium ore and in exchange, provided assistance in development of nuclear weapons and launch vehicles used for the weapons delivery.
A Soviet surveillance satellite discovered preparation for nuclear underground tests and after that, South Africa was put under diplomatic pressure of the USSR, USA and France. Then, an American surveillance satellite localized a specific flare in the ocean. It is assumed that it was a joint nuclear weapon test carried out by Israel and RSA.
In the beginning of the 1990s, South Africa signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and dismantled its nuclear charges that had already entered service with the RSA Army. (According to different estimates, there were about 7 items produced). In the opinion of some critics, the reason for that was pressure of the global superpowers: during that period, native-born locals were allowed to hold the reins of power, and the world leaders had all the reasons to fear that warheads could make it through to unpredictable companions of the African National Congress from Livia, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. However, ill-wishers claim that the warheads were allegedly not dismantled but transferred to Israel although it was never confirmed.
One way or another, upon completion of the military program, South Africa ended with a contingent of competent nuclear experts and quite effective nuclear technologies including uranium enrichment technology.
Peaceful atom
All at the same time, South Africa started development of nuclear power generation industry. In 1976, on the west coast of the South Africa, about 30 kilometers away from the city of Cape Town, the foundation stone was laid in a 2-unit nuclear power plant Koeberg. The latter was based on classic pressurized water reactors (PWR) 900 MW (el) developed by Framatome. Ocean water was used for cooling. The power units were commissioned in 1984 and 1985.
Back then, the South African economy was developing in a very intensive way. For example, over the period from 2000 to 2013, it grew by 1.5 times. The country was enticing foreign investors, and the economic growth was primarily due to energy-intensive industries such as mining (including precious metals and minerals), non-ferrous and ferrous industry, machinery and metal working, chemical industry, etc. At the same time, in the country with a population of 47 million, the unemployment level was still high which means that South Africa was favorably competing with China in terms of cheap labor. So, the electrical power was in demand, and the opportunities for growth were obvious: sometimes, the demand growth was ahead of the GDP growth. According to analysts’ estimates, in the coming 20 years South Africa will need about 40 GW of new power generating capacities.
This being said, about 90-94% of electrical power in South Africa are still generated by thermal coal-fired plants. The coal reserves are located in the north and the north-east of the country, and major consumers are in the south and the south-west (Cape Town, Durban). The coal transportation and the power transmission over long distances are economically ineffective. Besides, operation of coal-fired plants results in serious environmental damage. That is why the RSA authorities have always been, and remain the dedicated followers of NPPs as a way of solving power problems of the country.
The first African station
Below are the impressions that a Russian nuclear expert had after having visited the Koeberg NPP during the International Youth Nuclear Congress held in RSA in 2010: 
“Very strict access requirements. There are lots of unemployed people in South Africa, and the crime rate is high. So the plant’s physical security issues move to the forefront. The access to the plant premises reminds a preflight inspection at the airport. Everybody has to remove their shoes and belts. Bags are inside-light inspected. Also, great attention is paid to labor safety: protective eye glasses, ear plugs, hard hats and special shoes that are distributed at the door must be worn by visitors and staff on the plant premises. In the power house, a stand is installed where bright red canvas plugs and covers for pipes are displayed, ranged by size. They are used during repair, and the color is selected purposely to make it visible from afar that the equipment is out of service.
I would say that the main feature of the plant is its multinational staff. There are lots of contractually employed non-resident European specialists. There are 12 official languages including English in this country, so some incredible language mixture is used at the plant.
The environment is treated with care: a so-called national park is located around the plant perimeter. And just like we have squirrels and hares running around in the woods, common tenants there are zebras and antelopes.”
Also, as a tribute to European fashion, for emergency situations there were an “immediate” evacuation zone and a “preventive” evacuation zone 5 km and 14 km in area respectively established within the premises of Koeberg plant. This was a requirement for reactors built as per standards of the 1970s.
Pebbles in gas
There were two factors that inspired the South African Government to develop a specific technology of high-temperature gas reactors: a need to engage (i.e., to keep) highly qualified nuclear experts released after abandonment of the military program; and a possibility to get its own business segment on the market of low and medium nuclear capacities. That is when the PBMR (Pebble Bed Modular Reactor) project was born. Unfortunately, it turned out to be unwanted at that moment. But the sheer fact of development of such a reactor under conditions of the growing economy does credit to the Republic of South Africa.
A pilot PBMR was supposed to be launched at Koeberg, in particular thanks to the physical security of the facility in terms of unauthorized access. Spherical fuel elements (tennis ball-sized (60 mm) pebbles made of uranium dioxide U-235 with special coating and placed into a graphite matrix) are put into the reactor core surrounded by graphite reflectors. The reactor core may embed 450 thousands of such pebbles.
The reactor is refueled while in operation: new pebbles are fed from above, and spent pebbles are removed from beneath. By the way, this is one of the advantages of such reactor. Before that, “on-load refueling” was only allowed in high-power channel-type reactors RMBK common in the Soviet Union.
Among other advantages of the PMBR project, there were: impossibility of core melting, possibility to generate high-grade heat, operability in the power cycling mode (this one was especially important for RSA and other African countries with poorly developed system of power transmission lines), high efficiency rate (about 41%), etc.
One of the features of the PMBR project was modular design: each modular unit could generate about 400 MW and 165 MW of thermal and electrical energy respectively. Together, two modules occupied an area less than a football field. The number of modules could be different depending on customer requirements (a 4-module unit was deemed to be the best possible solution). Throughout the project existence (2000-2010), experts gave up on an intermediate steam generator and moved to the once-through circulation system where helium used as a coolant of the reactor core and heated up to 900ºС at the outlet was supposed to go directly to the turbine. That certainly improved the cumulative efficiency of a power unit although raised some other technical difficulties.
The following factors evidence how deep this theme was elaborated. The South African PMBR was based on German developments, and Germany has made significant achievements in this field by then: a gas-cooled reactor 17 MW (el) was put in service in 1967 in Julich, then a more powerful THTR-300 was built, and only political twists and turns prevented the country from further development of this perspective technology. So South Africa has bought the German developments: for example, the PMBR project reminds the German one a lot in terms of fuel management system and PCS. This said, South African experts developed the project of a power unit with a gas-cooled reactor even more in details. It may be confirmed by the following fact: according to unclassified media reports, pilot prototypes of spherical fuel elements for PBMR successfully passed the tests with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (USA) and with the Reactor Materials Institute (Sverdlovsk region, Russia).
However, any project is good only when it is customer-oriented. South Africa has found its segment. The 900-degree nuclear heat turned out to be in demand by petrochemists. Sasol was considering a possibility to produce automotive diesel fuel by the method of oxidation and liquefaction of natural gas. Another method considered was high-temperature electrolysis of water for hydrogen production. There were other projects, too. But African manufacturers had little possibility to invest in a new reactor.
Westinghouse was considered to be a strategic investor of GCR. Nevertheless, it was made clear that the company only invested money to keep its presence on the South African market of nuclear technologies, and not to nurture its competitor. Despite using “original” fuel produced under the French technology, the Koeberg plant faced many fuel issues during the initial operating period, and transfer to Westinghouse fuel successfully responded to that problem. Taking into account that Americans promoted development of the nuclear industry in South Africa, it solidified their positions even more.
However, Westinghouse decided to cut off financing of the PBMR project. The formal grounds were repeated postponements of the pilot power unit’s commissioning deadline – 2009, 2010, 2014... And without the American liquidity, further development of the project became impossible. The Japanese who were interested in gas-cooled reactors of low and medium capacity took their challenge off the table after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
In September 2010, the Minister of Public Enterprises Barbara Hogan made a speech in the South African Parliament to justify the project closeout. Despite the reactor’s attractiveness, there were no volunteers that would like to try it out. So there was no financing available for further project development, and the American investors kept aloof, too.
The near-term outlook of the South African power industry will be based on generation II or generation III reactors (PBMR was a generation IV reactor). In general, “...South Africa could with good reason call itself one of the global leaders in this field, it is a very important achievement for a developing economy, and we can be proud of it”. Thank you for your attention.
Towards a new tender
Taking into account the economy growth and the demand for electric power, South Africa places its stake on development of nuclear power industry starting from the beginning of the XXI century. About 6-8 power units are scheduled to be built by 2030 with total nuclear capacity around 9.6 GW (even more optimistic figures were announced). South Africa plans to increase the share of nuclear electricity in the power basket of the country from 5-7% now to 25-30% in the future. The first tender Nuclear-1 was put out at the beginning of the century where such behemoths as Westinghouse and AREVA confronted each other. Back then, Atomstroyexport (Russia) made an attempt to try a fall with them but eventually failed. Then, an economic recession of 2008 occurred, and tender results were annulled.
Today, South Africa imposes much stricter requirements to candidates for the “nuclear pie”. Officially accepted and proven commercial reactor is only one of them. Also, there are such economic requirements as localization of the equipment manufacturing in the Republic of South Africa. In this regard, Rusatom offers to place up to 40% of all orders with South African enterprises including orders for construction works – 24%, electrical equipment – 8%, pipelines – 4%. Moreover, local manufacturing content may be increased from 40% to 65%, and manufacturers of such equipment will be included to the global nuclear pool, i.e. their services will be required to perform international contracts for turn-key construction of Russian NPPs in other countries.
Besides, understanding financial difficulties of the developing country of the Third World, Russia will be happy to provide a loan for construction of a nuclear power plant on special terms for 70-85% of the project value.
However, Russia has quite serious competitors on the nuclear market of South Africa. The French have built reactors for the existing NPP. The Americans were one of the originators of the RSA nuclear program and are currently engaged in fuel supply. A Chinese company called China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp offers CPR-1000 reactors which may be classified as generation II in terms of safety (Russia offers III+) but are very cheap.
Technically, Russia has something to respond with. Starting from the mid-1990s, we have been supplying up to 45% of enriched uranium for production of fuel for Koeberg plant. By the way, South Africa has its own capacities (Y-Plant), but as an iconic character from a famous Russian movie said, “their grenades are not of the right system”. So there you are: in February 2014, the South African President Jacob Zuma confirmed commitment to nuclear power industry development plans. Russia offers quite favorable conditions in terms of credit financing, local manufacturing content, staff training, and academic development. Sergey Kiriyenko proposes wide economic opportunities: it appears that Russia intends to continue its nuclear expansion on the global market, and manufacturers of auxiliary equipment will have guaranteed orders – with due account of the fact that partners in Russia cannot satisfy the development requirements in full.
This time, Russia is very serious about the international tender that it had previously lost. Rusatom Overseas JSC that was entrusted with promotion of Russian nuclear technologies on the global market has joined the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA) as a sponsor, and in 2012 a memorandum of understanding was signed between Rusatom Overseas and the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA). It is hard to say what the result of the next international tender will be but there is no doubt that South Africa is one of the most promising platforms for development of Russian nuclear industry.
Ruslan Novoreftov
Photos: Bjorn Rudner,

Translated by Vladimir Alekseev

(С) Медиапортал сообщества ТЭК
Оформить подписку на контент Looking for authoritative content?
Копирование без письменного разрешения редакции запрещено


Full version