In an announcement to the Japanese stock exchange on Monday, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd said that it will participate in the development of a 120 MWe high-temperature gas reactor that is under design by Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Pty. Ltd. (PBMR) of South Africa.

Mitsubishi has been brought into the project to examine the technical and commercial viability of turbine generators powered by helium heated inside the reactor. A formal contract will be signed shortly. The company hopes to receive commercial orders in the future by participating in the early stages of the project.

A spokesperson for PBMR would not divulge further details of the tie-up until contracts were signed. She did confirm that any involvement was likely to as a supplier rather than as a shareholder in PBMR.

Pebble Bed Modular Reactor plans to begin building a prototype high-temperature gas reactor in March 2002 and intends to complete it by January 2007. The company ultimately aims to erect ten commercial high-temperature gas reactors in South Africa.

The ten modules will have a combined output of 1200 MWe at a construction cost of about $1000 per KWe installed. This compares to $900 per KWe for a new coal-fired power station in South Africa.

The concept of this type of nuclear technology was the brainchild of Dr Rudolf Schulton and dates back to the 1950s. The idea is to compact silicon carbide coated uranium granules into hard billiard-ball-like graphite spheres to be used as fuel for a new high temperature, helium cooled type of reactor. A 15 MW demonstration pebble bed reactor was built in Germany, which operated successfully for 21 years.

An independent research and development company, in which South Africa’s main utility, Eskom, has a 30 per cent stake, is developing the PBMR project. The project already has international backing with UK and US nuclear generators BNFL and Exelon owning interests. The remaining stakeholder is South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation with 10 per cent being retained for black empowerment investment