Out of Africa: Pebble bed nuclear reactors?

South Africa's painful electricity shortages suggest that the wealthiest country on the African continent is a technological laggard. That's not so. Indeed, despite the well-publicized woes of Eskom, the national electricity supplier, South Africa is an exception to the general rule that sub-Saharan Africa is impoverished scientifically and technology, at least in the realm of originality.


In the case of South Africa, the legacy of European immigration and the now-dismantled apartheid regime meant that the country maintained an active and dynamic scientific and engineering sector. Because of trade sanctions, South African technologists tended to create their own versions of everything, including nuclear weapons.


While the country dismantled its weapons when the apartheid system collapsed in 1994, South Africa remains a leader in nuclear power, owning much of the intellectual property for an exciting new approach to reactor design called "pebble bed." The country also has two operating nuclear reactors that provide 6% of the country's electricity. Uranium is also mined from South Africa.


Westinghouse, the leading American producer of nuclear reactors (and now owned by the Japanese), is part owner of the South Africa research entity devoted to commercializing the pebble-bed concept. The design approach, which is considered inherently safer and more economical than existing reactor designs, is also being tested in the U.S. and China.


South Africa's government said earlier this year that it plans to fund the construction and operation of as many as 24 pebble-bed reactors relying on its home-grown designs. The rollout would be the world's largest of its type, and evidence of continued strength of South African energy technology. The technology behind pebble bed was originally developed in Germany, but when the Germans shut off funding for nuclear energy development in their own country they sold off their innovations.


At the time of South Africa's purchase more than a decade ago, pebble bed looked like a useless curiosity but the revival of nuclear energy in general has cast a new light on the value of South Africa's nuclear expertise. And so has the country's electricity shortage.


[By the way, Spectrum featured an article by J. Weil in 2001 about pebble-bed reactor technology]


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