the "reactor renaissance" desperately demands new billions from a lame
duck Congress, one of its shining stars has dropped dead. Other
much-hyped "new generation" plans may soon die with it.
years "expert" reactor backers have touted the "Pebble Bed" design as
an "inherently safe" alternative to traditional domed light water
models. Now its South African developers say they're done pouring money
Pebble Bed's big idea was to create a critical mass of uranium
particles coated with silicon carbide and encased in graphite. These
intensely radioactive "pebbles" would seethe in a passive container,
cooled by helium. Without the need for a containment dome, the
super-heated mass would produce both heat and electricity. Touted as
needing no back-up emergency systems to prevent a major disaster, the
plan was to mass-produce these "smaller, simpler" reactors for use
throughout the industrial world.
Bed technology originated in Germany. But it was adopted and developed
by the government of South Africa. For some it was a source of pride
that a "developing" nation had become a significant player in the
so-called nuclear renaissance.
the South African government has now cut off funding for the project.
Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan has told the National Assembly
that "sobering realities" included the lack of working demonstration
model, the lack of customers, the lack of a major investment partner and
the impending demand for $4.2 billion in new investment capital. As
deadlines consistently slipped, Westinghouse withdrew from the project
African officials say the US and China are still working on the
technology. But economic realities make any tangible future Pebble Bed
as a major source of new energy largely imaginary. Critics also worry
that without a containment dome, the pebble beds would be vulnerable to
small groups of terrorists with simple shell-lobbing mortars. And that
critical metal components would not perform as needed under the intense
stresses of heat and radiation.
death of the Pebble Bed has considerable significance. For nearly two
decades reactor backers have counted it in the imaginary fleet of new
generation reactors coming to save us. Its alleged bright future would
make it just one of the many new nuclear technologies that would render
solar and wind energy unnecessary.
This anti-green arsenal has
also included fast breeder reactors, which would magically create new
fuel from used fuel. Canada's heavy water CanDu. Thorium reactors, which
would burn a radioactive element other than uranium. Fusion reactors,
which would mimic the gargantuan power of the sun. The AP 1000, new from
Westinghouse. The European (or Evolutionary) Power Reactor, new from
France's Areva. And a whole fleet of "Fourth Generation" designs which
are unproven and often wildly impractical.
Like older proposed
projects such as nuclear-powered aircraft, homes built of uranium and
nuclear-tipped anti-ballistic missiles, all have run afoul of reality.
None offer a realistic solution to the problems of waste or terrorism,
not to mention cost, heat emissions and greenhouse gas production in all
but the fission/fusion portion of the process. The first big breeder,
Fermi I, nearly exploded in Monroe, Michigan, in 1966, threatening to
irradiate the entire Great Lakes region. Today's models are extremely
dangerous, dirty and have been widely rejected outside France and Japan,
where they barely operate.
Canada has been unable to find
buyers for its CanDu design, and has put its own Atomic Energy of
Canada, Ltd., up for sale. Thorium reactors are unproven, with no
prototypes. Fusion reactors are periodically hyped and always "twenty
years away." The AP1000 and EPR face major regulatory, safety and
Meanwhile a "Fourth Generation" of proposed
reactors is theoretical and all over the map. As Michael Mariotte of the
Nuclear Information & Resource Service puts it:
"The Pebble Bed
has failed for the same reason all the other new reactor designs
ultimately will fail: they are too expensive compared to the
competition. Renewables and energy efficiency are cheap and getting
cheaper; nuclear is expensive and getting more so."
unending march of hotly hyped but feeble headed new design failures, the
US industry is now pushing hard to get its aging fleet---originally
designed to operate 30 to 40 years---licensed to run for 60 to 80 years.
But not one of 104 US reactors has a containment dome designed to
withstand a serious jet crash. Reactor builders now say they'll put
stronger domes on the new models, but prefer not to discuss cost or
The Pebble Bed's backers could not find
private investors, and the South African government finally got tired of
footing the bill. If/when that happens here---and the sooner the
better---the Solartopian technologies of true green power and efficiency
will finally get their day.
Then the "too cheap to meter"
six-decade Peaceful Atom fantasy, with its fast breeding corps of failed
new designs, can take its final rest in the very dead pebble bed.