South Africa’s abandoned Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project still casts a shadow over the country’s future nuclear energy plans, as far as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is concerned.
“We hated the PBMR because of its failure in Germany,” asserted the NUM national coordinator for energy Job Matsepe at the NUM Nuclear Workshop in Midrand (north of Johannesburg) on Tuesday. “At the NUM we are still anti-nuclear, because the PBMR was associated with nuclear.”
South Africa obtained a licence to develop the PBMR from Germany, where the technology (known there as AVR) was originally developed (China also obtained such a licence) and where a prototype 15 MW reactor had been operated for 21 years, from 1967 to 1988.
Matsepe further affirmed that the PBMR project’s cost of R10-billion was unjustifiable, that the project “delivered nothing”, that the PBMR Company’s plans to build a 400 MW commercial-scale reactor first, instead of a smaller test reactor, were “sheer madness” and that the PBMR management seemed not to know what they were doing. “The NUM was outraged that the reactor design was changed seven times in ten years.”
He also stated that his union had felt that the PBMR project had not been making progress and saw it as “a means to divert money away from the real needs of the people to a powerful foreign-owned nuclear industry”. They also believed that the PBMR board had been too secretive and subject to inadequate oversight.
Other criticisms levelled against PBMR by Matsepe included the company’s use of foreign suppliers and an absence of localisation, inadequate reporting by management of the project’s status (even to the Department of Public Enterprises – DPE), a lack of transformation, “excessive” use of foreign consultants, “excessive pay scales” and wide racially-based disparities in pay. Moreover, he complained of poor skills, conflicts of interest and corruption within PBMR management. “There was corruption in PBMR.” He demanded that the DPE answer the questions put to it by the NUM about the PBMR.
However, Matsepe stressed that neither he nor the NUM were necessarily against the country’s programme to build new nuclear power stations. “We are not criticising [the new] nuclear build. We are not fighting nuclear.” He highlighted that the broader debate on whether or not South Africa should build new nuclear power stations would take place at the Congress of South African Trade Unions' congress later this year.