Economic, environmental and practical reasons make nuclear power Africa’s best option
Dr. Kelvin Kemm and Knox Msebenzi
Centuries ago European countries were scrambling to take control of large pieces of Africa, to increase their wealth and colonial prestige. They brought their sophisticated, advanced ideas and methods to Africa. This changed the developmental direction of African countries, and positive influences were absorbed, while a great deal of unhappiness and conflict also resulted when colonisers could not grasp the limitations of converting Africa into a European clone.
Famed British author, Rudyard Kipling came to South Africa many times and wrote beautiful prose about the country but emphasized the deep spiritual differences in terrain and general character between Africa and England. He understood the heart and soul of the country, but very many did not and still do not.
Since then Europe has advanced greatly. But so has Africa, though not in the same way.
People of Africa have developed locally applicable solutions to issues and challenges. First World countries must accept that their technological solutions were developed for their social and geographic conditions, not ours. Yes, we have adopted and adapted many foreign solutions, but in most cases a straight transplant from the First World to Africa does not work optimally.
A major infrastructure development is electrification. High-voltage power lines of over 1000 km (620 mi) in length are unheard of in Europe but are common in South Africa, where they also traverse one of the highest lightning incidence areas on the planet. These realities have led to technologically advanced solutions.
The people of Africa know what is best for the people of Africa. First World countries really must refrain from using a paternalistic attitude by trying to tell Africans to “see sense” and to do it “the right way,” or do it to “prevent climate change” – all of which mean do it “their way.”
In South Africa coal has been the mainstay of electricity production for over a century, but the major coal fields are clustered in the far northeast. The port city of Cape Town is further away from the coalfields than London is from Rome! That’s why a nuclear power station was built near Cape Town some 40 years ago, to supply power for and from the south.
The decision to adopt nuclear power in South Africa was made because of sound strategic planning. It has turned out to have been a very good decision.
Nuclear is most certainly a source of sustainable clean energy. At least seven African countries have signed agreements with Russian nuclear company Rosatom to develop nuclear capabilities. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are currently being developed, which are ideal for deployment in virtually any location. Large conventional nuclear can be 3000 megawatts (MW) in output, whereas an SMR is only about 100 MW.
Contrary to widely circulated rhetoric – that nuclear and renewable energy (RE) are mutually exclusive – they actually complement each other very well. SMRs can vary power output at the will of the system operator. RE sources such as wind and solar depend on variable weather. If a cloud is cast over a solar plant, modern nuclear power can be ramped up to replace the reduced output.
Critics of nuclear falsely say nuclear is very inflexible. The reason why most nuclear plants are not designed for highly flexible operation is that their output does not depend on the amount of input fuel, like coal, diesel or gas. They are designed to just run flat out, reliably.
Certain critics of nuclear for Africa have argued that it requires specialized skills that African countries do not have. The truth is, these skills can be developed once a decision to go nuclear has been made – and conventional electrical or mechanical engineers can be “nuclearized” by training them on specialised nuclear aspects. Everything else is the same.
The idea that a national power system can run on RE sources is unrealistic and suicidal. A prudent approach is to find an optimal mix, providing grid stability and reliability. African countries need reliable disptachable power. This means, if there is any loss of generation somewhere in the system, the system controller can instruct other units to increase generation. With RE one gets only what the sun or wind is producing at the time. Increasing output is out of the question.
SMR systems can be sized for the needs of any country, and placed close to large load centres, thereby reducing the need for expensive transmission networks. As electrical power demand increases, it can be satisfied by small increments of one SMR at a time, which is a small stress on financial and logistical planning.
Nuclear power plant costs are predominantly in their construction; fuel costs are low. So once an SMR is in place, operational costs and fuel costs are low and are very predictable far into the future.
If Africa were to go nuclear in a large way, which seems probable, it would make sense to standardise on one particular SMR model. Staff in each country would be trained to be part of the network. Local construction ability in each country would be used to optimise benefit to each host country. As with large aircraft and vehicles, a policy of standardisation to some degree allows for mutual benefit in the exchange of expertise, experience and spare parts.
An ideal High Temperature Gas Reactor for African use is the HTMR-100, designed in South Africa. The technology uses gas cooling and high temperatures, which make these units very suitable not only for power generation but also for industrial processes that require heat. A typical application is desalination of sea water.
Many African countries rely to a very large extent on hydro power. But much African hydro is very problematic because of unpredictable rainfall patterns, and because dams are very wide and shallow, compared to dams in Nordic countries for example. So it is very challenging to maintain the pressure-head and water volume required for hydroelectricity.
African countries are obliged to devise African solutions that fit the realities of African conditions. African countries must have an immediate planning target of increasing electricity generation by 100% and then, in most cases, double that again – and again. That requires vision and foresight. In many instances that means developing very different approaches to those used in Europe or the USA.
In the case of Small Modular Reactors, the fuel is extremely small in volume and is also of robust construction. That means it is quite feasible to transport nuclear fuel overland for thousands of kilometers. It is also entirely feasible to stockpile a fuel supply that could last for months, or years if need be.
It is also reasonable to conceive of numerous stand-alone radial power grids that are based on two or three SMRs. Such small grids may be only 10 or 20 km in diameter, but one could serve an entire industrial area. In a large African country it may well be better to plan for half a dozen independent SMR-based mini-grids, than to construct one large national grid that must traverse many kilometers of inhospitable terrain.
Why should the traditional image of a single national grid apply? In the United States the state of Texas has its own electricity grid, independent of the rest of the US.
African countries do not substantially connect electrical grids to each other, as many European countries do. So why shouldn’t African countries run a number of separate grids within one country, where they serve specific areas? Such an approach is ideally suited to using distributed nuclear power plants, which do not need large-scale water cooling.
The more one thinks about it, the more inappropriate it is for African countries to follow the electricity development models of Europe, or America.
Yes, Africa definitely should “leapfrog ahead” in energy technology, bypassing coal, gas and oil in those countries which do not have them. They should “leapfrog” directly to Small Modular Reactors, and collaborate closely in developmental approaches.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria, South Africa. He carries out business strategy development and project planning in a wide variety of fields for diverse clients.
Knox Msebenzi is an electrical engineer and Managing Director of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa, in Johannesburg. He has many years’ experience in the nuclear power industry.