International Collaboration on Research & Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems Framework Agreement

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Mineral Resources and Energy

12 September 2007
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report

12 September 2007

Acting Chairperson:
Mr S Louw (ANC)

Documents handed out:
PowerPoint presentation: Department of Minerals and Energy

Audio recording of meeting

The Department of Minerals and Energy briefed the Committee on the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems. South Africa was a founding member of the Generation IV International Forum and accession to the framework agreement was a prerequisite to full active membership of the forum. South Africa had initiated a Pebble Bed Modular Reactor project that made use of the Generation IV technologies and active membership of the forum was regarded as essential to the deployment of the PBMR.

Members asked why other countries had not acceded to the agreement and remained as inactive members. Questions were asked about the challenges faced and the progress made by the PBMR project. There was a need to educate the public on nuclear energy and communicate the country’s nuclear energy strategy.

The Committee recommended that the accession to the framework agreement be approved by Parliament.

Briefing by Department of Minerals and Energy

Mr Tseliso Maqubela (Chief Director: Nuclear, DME) apologised for the absence of the Director-General of the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME). He briefed the Committee on the background to the Framework Agreement on Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems and the formation of the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) (see attached document).

South Africa was one of the founding members and signed the GIF Charter in July 2001. It was however a loose arrangement and progress was limited as not all member countries participated actively in the Generation IV project. The Generation IV Framework Agreement was established in February 2005 and South Africa’s accession to this international agreement was approved by the Cabinet on 18 April 2007. The DME was responsible for the implementation of the agreement. Section 231 of the Constitution required the approval of both Houses of Parliament before the instrument of accession can be lodged with the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).

South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project was a Generation IV nuclear energy system. Accession to the Framework Agreement allowed South Africa to participate in both the policy and the technical forums and to benefit from the results of the research and development undertaken by the other members of GIF. Generation IV systems can be used to produce hydrogen, essential for the hydrogen economies of the future.

In conclusion, the DME recommended that accession to the Framework Agreement was considered by parliament in order to allow the realisation of the full potential of the PBMR and for South Africa to become a global player in the nuclear energy sector.

Adv H Schmidt (DA) said that the current issue of the Economist magazine included an article where South Africa’s involvement in Generation IV nuclear systems and the development of PBMR was mentioned.

Mr E Lucas (IFP) said it was a good idea to form a forum where ideas were shared instead of re-inventing the wheel. The PBMR project had made some progress and will require further significant amounts of funding in future. He thought there was a note of uncertainty in the conclusion about the availability of the PMBR and asked if the objectives for the project were clear.

Mr C Molefe (ANC) asked which country hosted the GIF and where it was housed. He asked what immediate challenges were faced by the PBMR project.

Ms N Mathibela (ANC) wanted to know why other countries had not joined as members of the GIF.

Mr C Kekana (ANC) remarked that nuclear development was a sensitive issue and it was essential that all countries worked together. The UK and USA were pioneers in the field and he asked for a more detailed explanation why the UK decided to remain as a non-active member.

Mr J Combrinck (ANC) shared the concern over the non-participation of the UK and asked what progress was being made by Argentina and Brazil in acceding to the agreement.

In his reply to the questions, Mr Maqubela said that although the PBMR had not been explained to the people in South Africa, it was understood by technological peers in other countries and they were questioning why the project was being delayed. He believed that the PBMR did a lot for the revival of nuclear energy as an option since 2000 and agreed with the observation in the Economist that the project should be proceeded with. It was necessary not to be reckless and to follow due process but it was time that construction activities were started.

He explained that the use of commas in the presentation slide was misleading but believed that the PBMR was one of the contenders for Generation IV systems, if not the only one already in existence. Unlike PBMR, the other five systems were very far from implementation. The USA Department of Energy had expressed interest in using PBMR to develop the hydrogen economy in that country. He was reluctant to allow it to be piloted in another country when much of the work was done by South African scientists. Although many opportunities were lost when fabrication was put on hold over the last two to three years and costs had escalated, he believed that recovery was still possible.

Mr Maqubela explained that the GIF was chaired by the USA and was housed in Paris, under the auspices of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). The NEA was a subsidiary of OECD, which provided the secretariat for the GIF. South Africa will deposit the instrument of accession at the NEA once accession was approval by Parliament.

Mr Maqubela said that South Africa participated in the IEA initiative as well but decided against having the PBMR project evaluated as a Generation IV system because of the risk of losing intellectual property to competitors.

He said that immediate challenges included the lack of fabrication space, particularly for the manufacture of heavy equipment. At present, large components were manufactured in Japan but there were lengthy lead times that resulted in increasing costs. Manufacturing costs were further increased by the increase in the price of steel. Although cost remained the main challenge, consideration had to be given to the generation of base load electricity by means of nuclear energy and coal. The suitability of alternative sources of energy was still unclear.

In response to the Members’ questions on membership of the GIF, Mr Maqubela said that he was unaware of the reasons why Brazil and Argentina had not yet acceded. He speculated that the process of obtaining approval from their Governments took longer than anticipated. The UK decided to concentrate on the development of Generation III reactors and as a result, decided to remain an inactive member of the GIF. The UK did not participate in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership either and gave the need to finalise its nuclear policy as the reason for non-participation in that forum. South Africa was pursuing both Generation III (to address more immediate power needs) and Generation IV technologies and did not wish to write off the substantial investment that had already been made in the PBMR project.

Ms Ms Mathibela noted that countries that recently joined the GIF were allowed twelve months to accede. She asked what happened if accession did not take place within that period.

Mr Kekana mentioned that the PBMR project was mentioned in the President’s State of the Nation Address in 2007. No timeframes were included in the presentation, the project appeared to be still in the conceptualisation phase and he wanted to know when it will be operational.

Mr Lucas said that the man in the street was afraid of nuclear energy and proposed that an educational program was developed. He asked whether the “green” parties of the world were consulted and what their input was.

Mr Maqubela replied that South Africa was also allowed twelve months to accede but applied for an extension when it became apparent that the process of obtaining Government approval was taking longer than anticipated. The other countries had the same option and may apply for an extension as well. Should the deadline of the end of September 2007 not be met, South Africa would be unable to honour the commitment given to the GIF.

Mr Maqubela pointed out that the PBMR project reported to the Department of Public Enterprises and he was unable to report on what progress had been made. He supported the need for timeframes and a mechanism to ensure that timeframes were adhered to and were not allowed to be extended without adequate explanation. He mentioned that the PBMR project was constrained by a lack of adequate funding in the past and was unable to plan for periods of longer than a few months. The industry also suffered a loss of skills to the UK and other countries.

Mr Maqubela said that the leading nuclear nations were involved in GIF. South Africa was regarded as a first-tier nuclear-capable country and managed to retain some of the skills and knowledge by bringing people back from retirement to work on the programs sanctioned by Government.

Mr Maqubela agreed that it was necessary to change the way the industry communicated. The DME was committed to produce a comprehensive communications strategy before the end of the current financial year and was considering plans for the roll-out of the strategy. He said that nuclear energy was not as simple as people thought and it will require considerable hard work and discipline to achieve the objectives.

The Chairperson thanked Mr Maqubela for the briefing. The Committee recommended that the paper on the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems be approved in terms of Section 231 of the Constitution. The motion was proposed by Ms Mathibela and seconded by Mr Molefe.

The meeting was adjourned.



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