• Power play

    Africa’s energy-producing capacity is preventing the continent from reaching its full growth potential. Some countries are looking to nuclear for a solution.

    Power play

    Africa, a continent with well-documented potential for growth, needs power to fuel its development. The region’s inability to generate enough electricity is a significant hindrance to much-needed economic growth, shaving off between 2% and 4% of the continent’s GDP every year, according to the Africa Progress Panel. With this in mind, nuclear technology has been pegged as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution.

    Currently, South Africa, with its two nuclear reactors at Koeberg, is the only African country that generates power (some 5%) from nuclear sources. But the continent is fast catching up and several African nations have already drafted plans to pursue nuclear energy, including Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia and Uganda. These constitute more than a quarter of the 45 countries worldwide that are actively considering nuclear power programmes.

    According to the Institute for Security Studies, Algeria has the most advanced plans for nuclear power plant construction in Africa. The country proposes building two units, generating 2 400 MW, by 2030. Egypt intends to build two units of 4 800 MW by 2030, it says, while Kenya has four units in the pipeline, expected to produce 4 000 MW by 2033. Similarly, Nigeria is planning four units, set to produce 4 000 MW by 2027. Ghana has plans for one unit of 1 000 MW by 2025 and Morocco one reactor by 2030.

    Ogbonnaya Onu, Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, said in December last year that ‘nuclear power is considered a prominent alternative and a more environmentally beneficial solution since it emits far less greenhouse gas during electricity generation than coal or other traditional power plants’. Onu called it a ‘manageable source of generating electricity’ with ‘large power-generating capacity that can meet industrial and city needs’.

    Ghana’s Ministry of Energy established a nuclear power programme implementing organisation – called the Ghana Nuclear Power Programme Organisation – in September 2012, as part of the first International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) milestone. In January this year, the IAEA determined Ghana had made considerable progress in developing its nuclear power infrastructure, though some further work and policy development was still needed.

    Several African countries are also moving ahead with agreements with foreign firms to develop their nuclear industries. For example, Kenya signed a deal with the Korea Electricity Corp in September last year and has planned its first plant by 2027. Meanwhile, Rosatom, the Russian nuclear corporation currently bidding for the highly contested South African contract (six to eight reactors producing some 9 600 MW of nuclear energy), is currently in negotiations with several African countries – including Algeria, Egypt and Morocco – to build their proposed plants.

    According to the World Nuclear Association, in May 2016, Rosatom signed an intergovernmental agreement on co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy with Zambia. The agreement provides a framework for opportunities to construct nuclear power facilities. Further co-operation agreements were signed in December 2016. The first of these is for the training of Zambian specialists in Russia. The country will assist Zambia to train young nuclear energy engineers; plan for nuclear power plant personnel; develop a nuclear energy regulator; and construct a research reactor. It will also deliver medicine, agricultural services and energy. Zambia has a highly unreliable supply and load-shedding is common. Nuclear energy will do well to alleviate this.

    Kelvin Kemm, CEO of consultancy Nuclear Africa and chairman of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA), argues that the case for going nuclear in Africa is a good one. He says it is an ‘excellent thing to do’ and one ‘to be applauded’. Many countries in Africa are wholly dependent on hydropower, he says, which is a problem.

    ‘When there’s a drought, a country that runs entirely on hydropower can lose as much as 50% of its energy output,’ he says, adding that because the majority of African countries are not as blessed with fossil fuels as South Africa, that is not a viable route.

    Kemm believes that Africa is ‘quite well equipped’ to welcome nuclear power. ‘We have little other option,’ he says. ‘With nuclear, one must bear in mind that there’s a big distinction between large nuclear and small nuclear. Large plants, such as Koeberg, need large-scale water cooling, so they are always built on the coast or on the side of large dams or rivers.’ He explains that there could be a viable option in the pebble bed (PB) reactor, which the South African nuclear industry is pioneering.

    The PB reactor is a small, modular type of reactor ideally suited to inland conditions as it does not need water. It can operate independently of a centralised grid and offers an emissions-free solution in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.

    ‘Because PB reactors are modular, you can put up to 10 on one control room. One small reactor that produces 100 MW, would be enough to power the entire island of Mauritius or the whole of East London. Solutions such as this are ideally suited to many African countries. By and large it’s the smaller ones that they are looking at. These smaller solutions are the answer,’ says Kemm.

    Making the PB reactor yet more attractive, Kemm adds, is that it does not require major ancillary infrastructure such as, for example, a coal-powered plant, which needs to be near a coal mine or have a transport network from the mine to the power plant. Moreover, these smaller PB reactors can be built close to where the power needs to be consumed, for example, near an industrial area. They do not even need to be connected to the national grid in such instances, he says.

    ‘As far as nuclear is concerned, another massive advantage for Africa is that nuclear uses very little fuel. With the pebble bed, for example, the fuel source is the size of a cricket ball. So, you can stockpile six months’ or a year’s worth of fuel. You could never do that with coal.

    Being the most advanced nuclear energy consumer on the continent, South Africa is ‘only too happy to collaborate to assist other countries’, says Kemm. South Africa is not only able to supply the fuel source – provided it is approved by the IAEA – but is also able to assist with training and education, from basic skills level, such as craftsmen, right through to university-degree level.

    Despite there being some developmental work that needs to be considered before beginning a nuclear programme, such as ensuring nuclear legislation is on the books, putting a nuclear regulator in place, making provision for emergency responses, and securing IAEA endorsement, Kemm believes the continent is ready.

    ‘With many of the African countries looking at nuclear energy, I’ve said to all of them that they could go nuclear by the beginning of next week,’ he says.

    Anthony Stott, a senior nuclear engineer with the IAEA’s nuclear infrastructure development section, believes that for Africa, a nuclear future is not far off. As quoted in African Business magazine, he maintains that a handful of countries other than South Africa are making good progress, although it may be ’at least 10 years, more likely 15, before they could have a plant. It’s not something that will happen quickly’.

    By Toni Muir
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images