The search for energy diversification has taken a more frantic pace since the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Nuclear energy, not exactly in high repute in many countries, is now being mulled as a possible energy alternative. Even as a green alternative. The key for Africa is Small Modular Reactors(SMR), which can generate up to 300 MW, easily transported and installed. What previously was unthinkable may become realistic as the Russian-Ukraine conflict continues and the need for clean energy mounts.
A Global Overview
Internationally nuclear energy has established itself as a fuel of choice by various countries:
Historically Canada’s CANDU, unique heavy-water reactor run on natural uranium, dominated the export market to developing countries. The reactor’s smaller size, ranging from 100 MW to 700 MW, made it a better fit for smaller grids. Canada exported reactors to India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Argentina, South Korea, Romania, and China from the 1950s to the 1990s. The decline of the nuclear industry is attributed to dwindling sales and the introduction of newer designs by competing companies.
Four Canadian provinces—Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta—are currently working together to begin developing SMRs.
Nuclear power in the United States is provided by 93 commercial reactors. With a net capacity of 95.5 GW In 2019, they produced a total of 809.41 TWh of electricity, which accounted for 20% of the nation’s total electric energy generation. In 2018, nuclear comprised nearly 50 percent of U.S. emission free energy.
As of September 2017, there were two new reactors under construction with a gross electrical capacity of 2,500 MW, while 39 reactors have been permanently shut down. The United States is the world’s largest producer of commercial nuclear power and in 2013 generated 33% of the world’s nuclear electricity.
China ranks third in the world both in total nuclear power capacity installed and electricity generated, accounting for around one tenth of global nuclear power generated. Nuclear power contributed 4.9% of the total Chinese electricity production in 2019, with 348.1 TWh. As of June 2021, China had a total nuclear power generation capacity of 49.6 GW from 50 reactors, with additional 17.1 GW under construction.
Nuclear power has been looked into as an alternative to coal due to increasing concerns about air quality, climate change and fossil fuel shortages. More long-term plans for future capacity are 120–150 GW by 2030.
In October 2021 France announced plans to construct six new nuclear reactors so that by 2050 the country can maintain its 50 GW capacity to produce low-carbon nuclear power. France will now delay its planned reduction in the share of nuclear power in its electricity mix to 50% from the current 2025 target to 2035. Nuclear accounts for almost 75% of France’s power production.
Prior to the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident of 2011, 54 nuclear reactors were in operation in Japan, supplying 30% of the country’s electric power. As of March 2021, 10 years after the Fukushima accident, only five plants with a total of nine reactors have gained the agreement of local residents to resume operations. The country’s electrical shortage has been primarily offset by LNG imports.
Nuclear power in the Russian Federation is a driver for the development of other industries, and nuclear electricity production accounts for 20.7% of the national electricity mix. Currently, the country operates 38 nuclear power reactors and is steadily moving ahead with plans to expand the role of nuclear energy, including the development of new reactor technologies, in addition to the export of nuclear services. It seeks to close the fuel cycle, and fast reactors are considered a key component of this strategy.
South Africa has two nuclear reactors generating 5% of its electricity. The country’s first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1984. Over the years various strategic and development plans have been introduced and died on the drawing board. In October 2019, South Africa outlined plans to build 1 GW of new nuclear capacity by 2030, and to extend the operating lifetime of its existing plant by 20 years.
With its large debt, Eskom, South Africa’s dominant power player, is still the elephant in the room. Any definitive step to bolster the country’s nuclear capacity is highly dependent on the energy strategy that Eskom will decide on. In early 2022 Eskom stated that it was shutting down both units of its Koeberg nuclear power station for scheduled refuelling and maintenance, putting an already overburdened power system under additional strain.
The case for Africa
One of the most compelling studies discoursing potential nuclear power in Sub-Sahara Africa is entitled ‘Atoms for Africa: Is there a Future for Civil Nuclear Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa?’. The authors–Abigail Sah, Omaro Maseli, and Aishwarya Saxena– are Breakthrough Generation Fellows and Jessica Lovering is the Director of Energy at the Breakthrough Institute located in Oakland, California, USA. The scholars explore the feasibility of commercial nuclear power in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in light of advanced nuclear technologies and their potential to overcome some of the challenges to deployment.
According to the study one of the most important issues to be addressed is the energy deficit of the continent. Most traditional nuclear power plants (NPP) follow the rule of thumb that no power plant in a country should have a capacity that exceeds 10% of that country’s grid capacity. Most traditional NPPs in western countries have a power capacity of 1000 MW or more.
The authors of the study argue that SMRs could become feasible in Africa and nominate the following countries as ideally suited:
Nigeria and South Africa Development very likely
Ghana and Kenya Development possible with strong financing
Uganda Development possible with stronger financing and infrastructure
Nuclear energy requires high capital costs, long lead times required to develop robust legal and regulatory frameworks and proliferation concerns of nuclear fuel serve as barriers to develop nuclear capacity on the continent.
Wood Mackenzie has aptly described Africa’s energy deficits:
“Nearly 800 Million people globally live without access to any electricity, three-quarters of them in Sub-Saharan Africa…the average Nigerian consumes less than a third of the electricity used every year by a moderately efficient American refrigerator… Sub-Saharan Africa has a persistent lack of electricity access in part due to massive underinvestment in electricity infrastructure. Most of its public electric utilities are loss-making, with limited ability to maintain existing assets or invest in new ones. This hampers top-down growth in power supply and improvements in the availability, reliability and affordability of power. Stalled or partially complete power-sector liberalisation efforts… have allowed investments in generation capacity to grow steadily but have left the transmission and distribution segments behind. This is a major bottleneck to further electrification and a constraint on off-taker bankability for future generation projects. In adversity lies opportunity.”
Steps required to building a commercial nuclear industry
- Building of nuclear research reactors which can be used in a wide range of environmental, agricultural and medical fields. Presently the following countries have such facilities: Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.
- Establishment of Domestic Regulatory Framework. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has created a framework for countries to follow.
- Signing of Nuclear Safety and Security Treaties. Almost all countries have signed the African Weapons Free Zone Treaty and a majority have ratified, which prohibits all activities related to nuclear weapons developed, transported and their use.
The road ahead
Traditional nuclear power plants are geared to providing power generation which can be over 1,000 MW, enough to power close to one million households in a typical Western country. Therefore, traditional large-scale plants may not be the best first-choice for newcomer African countries.
Instead, Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) which have capacities up to 300 MW, enough to power 300,000 homes. SMRs can be manufactured in a factory and easily transported to the power plant site are far more feasible for African countries. Various SMRs exist:
High-Temperature Gas Reactors (HTGR)— Helium or carbon dioxide gas is used as the coolant for this technology, allowing it to operate at a much higher temperature of 1000oC, achieving greater thermal efficiency.
Floating Reactors—designs typically utilize the concept of a deep-water platform to host a nuclear reactor, usually a small modular light-water reactor.
Nuclear Batteries or Sealed Micro-Reactors— Several companies are working on extremely small modular reactors, 10 MW or less, which can operate for up to ten years without refueling.
Currently, Russia and China dominate the nuclear export market.
Rosatom, a Russian state-owned company, has come to dominate nuclear exports to developing countries because of their generous financing and worker training. Rosatom is a forerunner in sub-Saharan Africa, having signed nuclear power agreements with Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda that cover a number of arrangements, including financing, skills development, and the actual development of nuclear power technology. Rosatom’s model of Build-Own-Operate and SMR technology has proven very popular.
China Nuclear Engineering Group and China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation have signed partnerships with the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA). China General Nuclear owns and operates the world’s second largest uranium mine in Namibia and has also built research reactors in Algeria, Ghana, and Nigeria.
A key area to watch is whether China extends it Green Taxonomy policies to include the financing of nuclear plants in Africa, especially in support of its Belt and Road Initiative. According to a recent IEEFA(Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis) report, authored by Norman Waite, the People’s Bank of China has been quietly greening its financial system. A key measure is the introduction of a facility that would provide discounted central bank credit to banks lending to enterprises engaged in carbon emission reduction.
According to Waite, the People’s Bank of China has launched the Carbon Emissions Reduction Facility (CERF) which offers attractively priced funding to banks, conditional on loans extended to borrowers able to produce proven, audited, and consistent decarbonization results.
“By the end of 2021, within its first month of operation, the PBOC refinanced loans to 2,817 borrowers promising to cut 28.76M tons of annual carbon emissions. That is 0.8% of China’s annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal power. If the PBOC keeps this pace every month for 2022, the CERF could add significant cuts to the country’s CO2 by year-end”.
The PBOC introduced the “five pillars” of green finance that it would build to support its climate efforts going forward. The pillars include green finance standardization, green financial information disclosure and supervision, green finance incentive mechanisms, green financial products and markets, and international green finance cooperation.
A final question is whether SMRs are financially feasible? Take the NuScale SMR being developed in Utah, USA. NuScale has optimistically targeted the cost of power from the new plant at $58 per megawatt-hour (MWh), although some estimates predict costs for the power from new SMRs could reach $200/MWh. According to a study by IEEFA the project is “too late, too expensive, too risky and too uncertain”.
It may be to early to judge how other SMR projects will cost but no doubt SMRs will have to be competitive with renewables.
Some final thoughts
With the continued fallout of the Russian-Ukraine conflict and a rush to exit Russian natural gas exports nuclear power has gained a new and promising legitimacy. No doubt this impact will bring new questions. Nuclear safety, a fear of a new Fukushima, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island and how to manage nuclear wastes are key concerns. A fear that is global in scope.
Yet the global community and Africa can ill-afford to let fear drive its decision whether nuclear energy can be a game changer in the energy transition? Strategic decision-making and courage are needed to take bold steps to ensure that SMRs can be developed globally, especially in Africa.
Gerard Kreeft, BA (Calvin University, Grand Rapids, USA) and MA (Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada), Energy Transition Adviser, was founder and owner of EnergyWise. He has managed and implemented energy conferences, seminars and university master classes in Alaska, Angola, Brazil, Canada, India, Libya, Kazakhstan, Russia and throughout Europe. Kreeft has Dutch and Canadian citizenship and resides in the Netherlands. He writes on a regular basis for Africa Oil + Gas Report, and contributes to IEEFA.