Nuclear energy rethink? The rise and demise of South Africa's Pebble Bed Modular Reactor


A surprise announcement was delivered to the pebble bed modular reactor (PMBR) project in South Africa’s 2010 budget – it would no longer obtain significant state funds. As a result the project had to dismiss 75 per cent of its staff. It had spent in the region of nine billion rands of state funds without having realised any of its plans. Furthermore, it had been unable to attract significant outside investment or potential clients. Given the central importance of energy policy in South Africa, it is more important than ever that projects like the PBMR are evaluated for their necessity, viability, affordability, sustainability, and contribution to the country’s development path. While the government appears to have dropped the PBMR for the present, recent media rhetoric suggests that it is still committed to adding substantial amounts of nuclear power to its future energy mix. This effort seems to being made without first addressing problems relating to democratic governance, public policy making and promoting the special interests of lobby groups. This paper seeks to raise such issues within an appraisal of the country’s checkered nuclear history and its development aspirations.

About the author

Dr David Fig is an independent environment policy researcher. He was awarded a doctorate from the London School of Economics in 1992. He was an anti-apartheid exile in the UK from 1973–1983. Upon returning to South Africa he became deeply engaged in working to support the emerging South African labour movement. Since 1983 he has been involved in sustainable energy and anti-nuclear activism, monitoring nuclear power and uranium mining. He has published extensively on nuclear energy, including authoring Uranium Road: Questioning South Africa’s Nuclear Direction, which was published in 2005 by Jacana and critiques the nuclear industry in South Africa. In 1997 he helped found Biowatch South Africa, which won a case on the right to information on GMO releases against the state and multinational company Monsanto. Since 1999 Fig has chaired the Biowatch board of trustees. He has also done extensive work in journalism, reviews and advocacy publications and made presentations at various local and international forums.

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