South Africa looks to next-generation nuclear power

But last week, opponents filed papers against a new pebble-bed reactor near Cape Town.

On a sandy shore whipped by fierce winds and punishing waves, sits Africa's only nuclear power plant. The two reactors here at Koeberg, which came online in the last days of apartheid, pump out 6.5 percent of South Africa's electricity and light most of Cape Town, 12 miles down the coast.

This could become ground zero of a revolution in the way Africa - and the world - are powered.

South Africa's state energy provider, Eskom, is leading a $1 billion project to develop a new technology that it says will give nuclear power new life, both here and abroad. Eskom plans to build the world's first commercial pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR), which replaces traditional uranium rods with fist-sized balls containing tiny particles of uranium surrounded by graphite and silicon carbide. The design of such a reactor, proponents say, would make meltdown impossible.

But while environmentalists see the plant as a relic of a previous generation's flirtation with a dangerous source of energy, developers say that in an era of global warming and spiking energy needs, next-generation nuclear power is the world's best hope.

"Nuclear power is clean from an emissions point of view," says Carin de Villiers, a spokeswoman for Eskom. "It's not a case of having no impact on the environment. That's not possible. I think it's a case of doing what you can to minimize that impact."

For South Africa, the appeal of nuclear power is twofold. First, the country itself is experiencing a sharp increase in demand, fueled by industrial growth and a program to bring electricity to formerly underserved communities. In 1993, only about 30 percent of South Africans had access to power; today that figure is above 60 percent and growing.

Sustainable energy like wind and hydroelectricity can meet some of that need, but Eskom says such methods are limited. And coal, which provides 90 percent of South Africa's electricity needs, is highly polluting.

But South Africa's vision for PBMR extends far beyond its own borders. Ultimately, it plans to export the technology and hopes to build 10 to 20 such plants around the world each year, creating an industry that would employ 57,000 people and bring important investment here.

"Ten years ago, when Eskom started investigating this technology, nuclear [power] was not the flavor of the month," says Tom Ferreira, director of communications for Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, a company created by Eskom and international investors to develop the technology. "But there are 30 new nuclear reactors being built at the moment [worldwide] and there is certainly a trend toward nuclear that did not exist 10, 15 years ago."

Germany and China have both produced small experimental pebble-bed reactors, but South Africa's would be the first and largest commercial example of the technology. In pebble-bed reactors, each tiny grain of uranium essentially has its own protective casing able to withstand extreme heat. Proponents say this should silence meltdown concerns. They also say that pebble-bed reactors produce much less waste than traditional ones.

South Africa is gambling that countries that are already investing in new nuclear facilities, particularly in Asia, will start building pebble-bed reactors once the technology is proven - in seven to 10 years, if all goes according to plan.

Whatever the potential benefits, however, critics say the project has been a big financial gamble for a country struggling to provide basic services to its people. (Developers say the project will break even only after 30 plants are built.)

In June, an environmental- impact assessment gave Eskom the go-ahead, but last week environmental groups filed papers to challenge that decision in court. The Cape Town city government has also put its weight behind the opposition, as have civic groups.

"Any type of nuclear energy is obviously, for a whole range of reasons, not good," says Liz McDaid, a spokeswoman for the South African environmental group Earthlife. "But this particular one is very, very expensive and untested, and we think that it has all the problems of old nuclear technology, and that any claims to be better and brighter are only on paper."

Opponents say they don't want such a new technology tested so close to a major urban population. They say that even if it's safer - which they contest - there's still the problem of nuclear waste, which is currently stored on site or buried in a desolate area in the country's northwest. Ms. McDaid and others say that South Africa should invest in developing renewable energy sources like tidal, wind, and hydroelectricity.

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