SAfrica sees first pebble nuclear reactor by 2018

* In talks with potential local, foreign equity partners

* To couple power generation, industrial process heat use

JOHANNESBURG, June 23 (Reuters) - South African nuclear technology firm PBMR plans to have its first 80 megawatt (MW) power and heat processing plant based on its pebble-fuel technology by 2018, a company official said.

Tom Ferreira, a spokesman for Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), said the timeline for the launch of the plant had been delayed after the company decided to change its designs to attract more investments and bridge a funding gap.

“If everything goes smoothly, we will have the first plant producing electricity or process heat (used to produce cleaner gases and liquid fuels) by 2018,” he told Reuters.

The company had initially planned to build a power plant by 2014 to boost generation capacity at state-owned utility Eskom [ESCJ.UL], which has been battling to fill a dire power shortage, and help reduce the utility’s carbon footprint.

But the global economic slowdown has forced the company to change the design to include industrial applications as well, using PBMR's ability to create high temperatures to attract buyers among companies including those active in Canada's oil sands projects and petrochemicals group Sasol SOLJ.J.

Ferreira said that while the first plant would take some four years to be built from the time the company expects to take a final commercial decision in 2014, the next ones would take only two years to be constructed.

“That’s the beauty of these plants that you can build as many of the 80 MW units as you need ... and you can put it where the electricity is needed and save on transmission costs and avoid transmission losses,” he said.

Ferreira said that while he expects to get the environmental approval for the original plant before the end of this year, it could take another year to get the okay for the changed design.

U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric, majority owned by Japan's Toshiba Corp 6502.T, Eskom and South Africa's Industrial Development Corporation have so far invested some 7 billion rand ($860 million) to prove the PBMR technology since 1999.

Ferreira said the company had enough funding to last until June next year, but would need a boost after that.

“We will definitely need substantial funding... there are potential equity partners locally and internationally that we are talking to,” he said.

In the future, the company might consider a listing, but Ferreira said he did not foresee it in the next decade.

PBMR has signed a memorandum of understanding with China which is developing the same technology, to benefit from possible synergies once the project moves to the commercial stage, he said. (Reporting by Agnieszka Flak; Editing by Keiron Henderson)