Despite delays for almost three years, the hi-tech nuclear reactor that will produce South Africa's electricity is forging ahead and will be the first in a new generation of helium gas cooled reactors.

The R17bn capital investment project will provide one of the solutions to South Africa's power problems by 2013 and although not the only technology under development, the project is to become the first commercial-scale high-temperature reactor in the world.

The high-temperature helium gas-cooled reactor is the first of a new generation and the project entails building a demonstration reactor at Koeberg outside Cape Town, and a pilot fuel plant at Pelindaba near Pretoria.

Controversy and a lack of support are thought to have caused the delays up until now, but the demonstration reactor design is now completed and construction is due to start next year - with the first fuel to be loaded four years later. If successful, another 10 plants could later be built.

Robert Peters, a Senior Consultant at the fuel development laboratories at the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, commented, “Its nuclear-generated power has been proven to be clean, highly efficient and cost-effective. It can be built anywhere because it is proliferation resistant.”

Thirty other nuclear plants are currently being built in 12 countries, Peters noted, with the South African project supported by the government, Eskom and the Industrial Development Corporation among others. The commissioning of the first commercial pebble bed plant is scheduled for 2013.