Steenkampskraal thorium to be used in pebble-bed reactors

26th October 2012 By: Leandi Kolver - Creamer Media Deputy Editor

Steenkampskraal Thorium Limited (STL) aims to beneficiate thorium from the Steenkampskraal mine, near Van Rijnsdorp, in the Western Cape, through the TH-100 pebble-bed reactor and associated fuel-plant project, STL CEO Eben Mulder tells Mining Weekly.

The project started at the beginning of this year and STL plans to design and build a small-sized pebble-bed reactor based on known technology. The 100 MW thermal plant will produce 35 MW to 40 MW of power, he says.

“With the development of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), a small-scale nuclear reactor project that was placed under care and maintenance in 2010, we had ambitious goals; however, with this project we decided to drop those goals and only use known technology,” Mulder adds.

Meanwhile, STL is consider- ing making use of the now defunct PBMR fuel development laboratory equipment at Pelindaba, if a suitable agreement with the Department of Public Enterprises can be reached. Otherwise, a suitable fuel factory will have to be found elsewhere, he says.

“At Pelindaba, the fuel development laboratory work was based on uranium tech- nology, but we would like to use the equipment and con- vert some of that plant equipment into a thorium development plant, after which we can have the fuel tested for quality and start producing on a commercial scale,” he explains.

The TH-100 reactors can be used off-grid, which means that they are typically suitable for use at a mine with no access to Eskom power, says Mulder.

The current electricity use in the Northern Cape is about 100 MW; however, with new mining developments, the province will soon need 300 MW more, he adds.

“The transmission lines for these new developments have not yet been put up and establishing these lines could cost up to R1-billion. Further, what many people fail to realise is that establishing a power plant is only about 40% of the cost of new generation, while 60% of the costs are for transmission and distribution,” Mulder explains.

“Deploying TH-100 plants could aid in providing the required energy to help develop these mines that are currently deprived of the necessary electricity supply,” he says.

Meanwhile, aside from producing electricity, the plants could also produce high-quality steam, which can be used in process heat applications and in the desalination of water.

The TH-100 plant could also be used to purify acid mine drainage (AMD), Mulder states.

“While the reactor is generating electricity it can purify AMD simultaneously. The purified water can be used again for process water or as drinkable water.”

To generate the necessary funding for the project, STL is seeking about ten potential clients to share in the cost of the development and construction of the demonstration reactor and asso- ciated fuel plant, after which these clients will be the first to benefit from the technology when it is deployed, Mulder says.

“We currently have our first investor on board and expect to sign up a few more shortly,” he adds.

STL will potentially develop the reactors almost entirely in South Africa, although it depends on the level of moral support the company receives from the South African gov- ernment, as it has also been invited to do the development in countries such as Canada and the US.

The first two phases – the preconcept and concept design – have been completed for the power plant, while the fuel-plant project is under way. STL is currently in the process of doing the basic design, after which a preapplication for a nuclear licence will have to be submitted.

“We have not yet decided whether we are going to apply for the nuclear licence in South Africa or in another country. We have an open invitation to conduct the development in the US, but this will have certain consequences, such as having to take on a US partner and having to do most of the development in the US,” he says.

While the process depends on funding and other external factors, STL believes it could have the first plant designed and built within the next five to ten years.