Site selection pushes China into a strong position to develop the new technology as South Africa's bid is sidelined by the environmental lobby

Reports that China has selected a site for a 195 MW pebble bed reactor has supported claims that the country plans to develop the world’s first commercially operated reactor using this technology. A consortium led by Huaneng Power International has reportedly chosen the city of Weihai on Shandong Province’s northeastern coast to build the gas-cooled plant. The proposed reactor could begin operations within five years. The consortium, which is preparing to apply for government approval, also includes China Nuclear Engineering and Construction (CNEC), and Tsinghua University. Huaneng is expected to control a 50% stake in the joint venture that will build the plant, CNEC 35% and Tsinghua 5%. The remaining 10% may be offered to other investors. The initial development costs of the plant are estimated at around $1,500/kW.

The Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology at Beijing’s Tsinghua University which operates 10 MW test pebble bed reactor outside Beijing, is providing the technology for the planned power station. It currently operates the world’s only operational pebble bed reactor.

Developments in China contrast sharply with those in South Africa where energy giant Eskom is struggling to develop its own pebble bed reactor in the face of legal challenges from the environmental lobby. Earthlife Africa brought an action that challenged a June 2003 decision by Environmental Affairs and Tourism director-general Chippy Olver, which gave the environmental go-ahead for the project. The court ruled that the environmental impact assessment of the project had to be reconsidered, with interested parties given the opportunity to submit further written submissions before a new decision on Eskom’s application is made.

Eskom maintains that the Cape High Court decision to stop construction of its proposed 110 MW reactor at Koeberg need not affect its deadline for the start of construction, expected to commence in the first quarter of 2007. The Department of Environment Affairs plans to appeal.

The project has cost some R1.5 billion (€187 million) so far and some estimates have put the cost through to decommissioning of the pilot plant at R15 billion (€1.9 billion).