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Nuclear power: A sensible and sustainable option for Africa

The decision to adopt nuclear power in South Africa was made as a result of sound strategic planning. It has turned out to have been a very good decision, writes Dr Kelvin Kemm and Knox Msebenzi.

Africa is huge, much larger than the standard Mercator map projection indicates. Africa is the size of the US, Europe, China, India and Japan combined. The African Island of Madagascar is larger than the UK. South Africa alone is the size of the whole of Western Europe.

People from Europe often cannot comprehend social discussion in which someone mentions that they drove 100km to attend a party, and then drove home afterwards. Africa is sparsely populated in comparison to first world countries. Meteorological conditions are very different, as are the fauna and flora.

A couple of 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 the positive influence was absorbed. But 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 at the time of war between Britain and South African settlers of Dutch descent, who had arrived some 200 years earlier. The settlers of Dutch heritage had become part of Africa by this stage and did not want to be controlled or dominated by the British. A conflict of ideology resulted which led to a destructive four-year war.

Kipling with his intellect was able to see through the messy fog of violent conflict and fell so in love with the country and its spirit that he made an annual visit for the following decade. He wrote beautiful prose about South Africa but emphasised 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, but 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 mostly a straight transplant from the First World to Africa does not work optimally.

Frequently, completely African-developed solutions work best, and in a number of instances, ideas which originated in Europe were then dramatically modified in Africa when looked at with an African vista. These were then returned to Europe in a significantly improved form. Such cases are the development of the world GSM cellphone network; and dust filtration on locomotives, helicopters and farm machinery.

Major infrastructure development is electrification. But very high-voltage power lines of over 1,000km in length are unheard of in Europe. In South Africa, such power lines 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 in trying to tell Africans to ‘see sense’ and to do it ‘the right way,’ which means; ‘their way’.

In South Africa, coal has been the mainstay of electricity production for over a century, but the major coalfields are clustered in the far northeast. The port city of Cape Town is further away from the coalfields than London is from Rome. So some 40 years ago the most southerly nuclear power station in the world was built near Cape Town, to supply power from the south.

The decision to adopt nuclear power in South Africa was made as a result 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 capability. Nuclear is highly regulated and therefore a robust nuclear regulator is required. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are currently being developed which are ideal for deployment in virtually any location. Large conventional nuclear can be 3,000MW in size whereas an SMR is only about 100MW in output.

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The term ‘modular’ refers to small sub-assemblies which can be fabricated in factories and then integrated on-site. Large nuclear typically involves much on-site fabrication, plus the challenging transportation of certain huge vessels. SMR technology makes it easier to standardise reactors, and factory construction makes it easier to apply strict quality control.

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. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar depend on the variable weather. If a cloud is cast over a solar plant, nuclear power can be ramped up to replace the reduced output.

Critics of nuclear falsely say that 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. So they can be designed to just run flat out, reliably. In France and Germany nuclear plants are used to vary supply as power requirements change; called ‘load-following’.

SMRs are ideal for replacing coal plants that are decommissioned, especially in South Africa. This means basically; that everything remains almost the same – no new power lines, no new roads etc. This will give new life to the prospects of the sustainability of job security for communities around the plants.

Nuclear can balance renewables

Certain critics of nuclear for Africa have argued that it requires specialised skills that African countries do not have. The truth is that these skills can be developed once a decision to go nuclear has been taken. Besides, the conventional electrical or mechanical engineers can be ‘nuclearised’ 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 of technologies, taking into consideration grid stability and reliability. African countries need reliable disptachable power. This means that 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. Some countries, like Germany, can afford to aspire to 100% RE because they are part of the EU Power Pool and are surrounded by a support structure like; nuclear power in France, coal in Poland, and hydro in the Scandinavian countries. Most countries in Africa cannot afford this luxury and therefore any power system has to be reliable.

Because of the inherent safety of SMR units, licensing by a nuclear regulator is relatively easy. The industry can adopt the approach taken by the aviation industry. Boeing and Airbus licence their aircraft in the countries of manufacture, but they are operated all over the world.

SMR systems can be sized for the needs of any country, and be placed close to large load centres thereby reducing the need for expensive transmission networks.

Have you watched this conversation on nuclear power in South Africa?

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. SMRs reduce the risk of cost overrun as they are small amounts, and much construction is done in a controlled environment – the factory floor.

Due their advanced safety features (including no possibility of a nuclear meltdown), SMRs can be constructed almost anywhere. The mandatory emergency planning zone is minimal. They also fit in nicely with the concept of distributed generation. 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 and to have a central manufacturing facility. 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 and to keep costs down.

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As with large aircraft and motor cars, 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 requiring heat. A typical application is the desalination of seawater to obtain potable water by literally boiling seawater and capturing and condensing the steam. Units placed near coastal cities can be used for water desalination.

Although South Africa possesses vast quantities of coal, most African countries do not have access to reliable supplies of fossil fuels. This includes the consideration that a coal supply, in many instances, would have to be transported overland over vast distances.

As a result, many African countries rely to a very large extent on hydropower. But much African hydro is very problematic because of unpredictable rainfall patterns, but also because dams are very wide and shallow, in comparison to dams in Nordic countries for example. So it is very challenging to maintain the pressure-head and water volume required for hydroelectricity.

All African countries are obliged to think up African solutions which fit the realities of African conditions. African countries have to have an immediate planning target of increasing electricity generation by 100%, and then, in most cases, have to double that again, and again. Such an outlook requires vision and foresight. In many instances, that means; developing very different approaches to those used in Europe.

In the case of Small Modular Reactors, the fuel is extremely small in volume and is also of robust construction. That means that it is quite feasible to transport nuclear fuel overland for thousands of kilometres. It is also entirely feasible to stockpile a fuel supply which could last for months, or years if need be.

It is also reasonable to conceive of numerous stand-alone radial power grids which 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 aiming for significant development, it may well be better to plan for half a dozen independent SMR-based mini-grids, than to construct one large national grid which has to traverse very many kilometres of inhospitable terrain.

Why should the traditional image of a single national grid apply? In the US, 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 should African countries not 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. Yes, Africa should definitely ‘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 furthermore collaborate closely in developmental approach.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is 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. Stratek@pixie.co.za

Knox Msebenzi, an electrical engineer, is the Managing Director of the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has many years experience of the nuclear power industry. knox.msebenzi@gmail.com

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