US Secretary
of Energy
Steven Chu
25 March 2010 – Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) has been described by US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu as “one of the most promising areas” in the future of civil nuclear energy.

“If we can develop this technology in the US and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. “If commercially successful, SMRs would significantly expand the options for nuclear power and its applications.”

President Barak Obama’s budget request for 2011 includes $39-million for a new SMR programme, which will help to get SMR designs licensed for commercial use. South Africa’s pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) is an SMR (there are other SMR designs as well).

On the 8th March, the US Department of Energy (DoE) announced that it had awarded contracts worth $40-million to two consortia for conceptual design and planning for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant programme. One consortium is headed by General Atomics, the other by Westinghouse Electric.

The Westinghouse consortium includes two South African companies – the PBMR Company and M-Tech Industrial. Its other members are Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure Inc., Toshiba, Doosan, and Technology Insights.

As a result of this DoE contract, the PBMR Company will earn $10-million. Following the very severe budget cut inflicted on the predominantly State-owned PBMR Company in the national budget in February, the South African nuclear technology company will have to cut its some 800 staff complement by 75%. PBMR’s CEO, Jaco Kriek, has already announced his resignation. The US contract will, however, keep the rump of the PBMR Company afloat for at least the next year.

Westinghouse is a minority shareholder in the PBMR Company and last week, the US company stated that, next year, it would consider making a further investment in the by-then significantly downsized South African enterprise. Westinghouse already has a subsidiary company in South Africa, Westinghouse South Africa, which was originally IST Nuclear.