By Tim Yeo
In developed regions, steps are underway to move away from nuclear power. In Africa, some countries are taking tentative steps to add this technology to their energy mix. We approached the New Nuclear Watch Institute to unpack the relevance of nuclear power to an African country’s energy infrastructure plan.
Now recognised as more critical than ever before, the world’s electricity generation industry needs to decarbonise. Time is running short if humanity is to prevent dangerous, irreversible climate change from occurring.
African countries are as vulnerable to the harmful consequences of climate as those in other parts of the world. Therefore, they must play an active role in the global transition to low carbon energy in the way others will have to. But unlike other regions, the particular challenge African countries face is that they must transition while advocating increasing electricity use to accelerate economic development.
Much of Africa has considerable natural advantages concerning renewable electricity generation technologies such as solar. IRENA’S REmap Africa 2030 quantifies a solar PV potential of 70GW that can be reached by 2030. The association acknowledges that realising this would require, on average, 4.6GW of solar PV capacity to be added each year over the 2018–30 period from a base of only 2.5GW capacity installed in 2017.
However, the dangers for any modern or aspiring economy of becoming too heavily dependent on intermittent sources of electricity are increasingly apparent. A significant element of reliable baseload low carbon electricity capacity is essential to enable emerging market countries to reach net-zero without impeding economic development.
For many, and possibly for most African countries, this should mean including an element of nuclear power in their energy mix. Paradoxically, only South Africa currently has commercial-scale nuclear reactors producing electricity for a continent very rich in uranium reserves. The two reactors operating there were built in the last century – a stark reminder that Western Europe is not the only place where nuclear development has slowed down.
One possible explanation for this underdevelopment may be the high upfront capital cost of nuclear plants. It may have been a deterrent for governments that needed to secure a quicker return on their expenditure than could be achieved by investment in nuclear energy.
This difficulty may now be easier to overcome as vendors are increasingly willing to arrange finance packages. For example, one of a handful of African nations pressing ahead with nuclear development, Egypt, has negotiated a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia. Rosatom will build four 1.2GW pressurised water reactors in Egypt, and with 85% of the construction costs financed by a $25 billion Russian state loan.
Russia is not alone in its desire to grow its nuclear export business. China and South Korea have similar ambitions. Their governments would likely work with China General Nuclear Power Group and the Korea Electric Power Corporation respectively to offer similarly attractive financial packages to any African governments thinking of venturing down the nuclear road.
Furthermore, there are other players in this arena. France, Japan, the US, and Canada may each become participants in future. If potential African customers for new nuclear power plants play their cards carefully, something resembling a buyers’ market could emerge.
Another historical reason for the low level of installed nuclear capacity across Africa is the ready availability of coal in many parts of the continent. In the past, coal has frequently been the cheapest and most convenient source of electricity.
Today, however, only the most blinkered climate sceptics still believe that the increased use of coal can meet the world’s rapidly growing future energy needs. This constraint will apply to Africa as much as to other continents.
At the same time, the escape from poverty, which tens of millions of African citizens both aspire to and deserve to achieve, requires near-universal access to reliable electricity supplies. Making their dreams of more prosperous, more comfortable and fulfilling lives a reality and facilitating faster economic growth in their countries will inevitably involve a massive increase in electricity consumption.
The challenge of delivering that increase without causing greenhouse gas emissions to rise is what makes a new nuclear power plant construction programme so relevant in Africa today.
Some opponents of nuclear suggest that without better transmission grids, large nuclear plants aren’t suitable for the needs of African consumers. This stance ignores that Africa has over 30 cities with more than 1.5 million people each, roughly the same number as Europe.
Even if new nuclear capacity was confined to these large urban populations alone, it could hugely improve energy security in all the countries concerned while simultaneously driving down global greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, small and advanced modular nuclear reactors will become available later in this decade. Small reactors are defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as those having a capacity of under 300MW.
The possibility that small modular reactors can be built almost entirely within a controlled factory setting and installed module by module means that the level of construction quality and efficiency can be improved. It is expected that their modular nature will also lead to significant economies of scale being achieved.
Smaller reactors will have the critical advantage of delivering reliable low carbon baseload electricity at a scale that enables the use of a far more comprehensive range of locations. These locations will include brownfield sites that may previously have hosted decommissioned coal-fired power plants.
The propensity for minigrid development in many African nations also fits comfortably with the expected arrival of smaller nuclear reactors. A proposal is underway for a further subcategory of very small reactors (vSMRs) with a capacity of 15MW or less. These will be especially good for remote communities.
In every region of the world, an obstacle to the broader deployment of nuclear comes from objectors who allege that nuclear technology is unsafe, unhealthy or even environmentally harmful.
Most of these objectors ignore that the absolute overriding priority is to maintain continued economic development while simultaneously transitioning to a global economy with net-zero emissions for the rest of this century. There’s really no point in worrying about whether nuclear waste storage will still be safe 250 years from now if climate change has rendered most of the earth uninhabitable by humans.
Furthermore, these objections fly in the face of all the evidence. Earlier in 2021, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) published a report confirming that the latest nuclear reactors have lower accident fatality rates than any other electricity generation technology.
This JRC report also pointed out there is no scientific evidence that nuclear harms human health any more than other energy technologies such as renewables, widely accepted as sustainable activities. Until recently, the European Commission has veered between ambivalence and hostility in its attitude towards nuclear energy. This change of heart should encourage African governments, which are looking favourably on the merits of nuclear.
Hopefully, ill-informed scaremongers will not deter governments from developing new plants in those African countries where nuclear energy is most urgently needed.
At the top of the candidates for investment in nuclear must be South Africa, where discussion on possible nuclear developments has taken place for many years. South Africa urgently needs to cut its dependence on coal to meet the more challenging emissions reduction target it announced in late September 2021. It also needs to reduce the environmentally inefficient long-distance transport of coal between mines and power stations.
While renewables can take up some of the slack left behind by the closure of coal power plants, the intermittent nature of wind and solar power means that the problem of outages will continue to plague the system without a contribution from nuclear.
A firmer lead from the government and greater consistency in its approach to nuclear are needed to get its domestic energy policy on a firm footing and enable it to continue exporting electricity to neighbouring countries. The time to act is now.
Nigeria’s extensive use of gas and hydropower means it is under much less international pressure than South Africa to change its electricity generation system. Its main priority at present is to improve the reliability of its electricity system by improved maintenance, reduced theft and more open scrutiny.
Against this background, a rigorous inspection regime, preferably overseen by the IAEA, would be essential before nuclear plants are built in Nigeria. Without it, there would be fears that safety issues would not receive the priority they require.
A nuclear build will not happen immediately, but despite these circumstances, it is hard to see how Africa’s largest economy will get anywhere near net-zero emissions by mid-century without nuclear energy on its system.
Finally, Kenya, Africa’s sixth-biggest economy, has taken tentative steps towards investing in new nuclear capacity. These have attracted the attention of several exporting countries, including China, Russia, France and Korea.
Unlike South Africa and Nigeria, Kenya does not have a history of fossil fuel dependence. Instead, it has supplemented its hydropower capacity with geothermal. Nevertheless, its fast-growing economy is expected to lead to a vast increase in demand for electricity. Its preparations for introducing nuclear into its energy mix have received an approving nod from the IAEA. It could take an early lead in East Africa’s use of nuclear.
There are many other African countries, all of which can, some should, and hopefully, some will, develop nuclear energy in future. To extract the most significant benefit for themselves and thereby make the biggest contribution to addressing climate change, a degree of collaboration might help.
Reaching agreement about common safety standards across national boundaries helps vendors reduce prices without compromising the freedom of choice of individual nations. Smaller countries might be able to drive harder bargains with vendors if they linked together and coordinated purchasing policies.
By coming to the nuclear energy party for the most part by past mistakes or regretted commitments, Africa can take full advantage of the lessons learned, sometimes expensively, by countries in other continents. It will be for the benefit of humanity if they seize this chance.
About the author
Tim Yeo, chairman of the New Nuclear Watch Institute, has a longstanding commitment to the nuclear energy industry dating back three decades to when he was Minister of State for the Environment with responsibility for climate change policy in the UK Government. He later served in the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry before being elected as chairman of the UK Parliament Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. www.newnuclearwatchinstitute.org