Koeberg nuclear power station, South Africa

By Dr Kelvin Kemm, a nuclear physicist and Convenor of the Stratek Nuclear Consortium

Worldwide we have witnessed intense energy discussion over the last couple of years. This has been compounded by a number of significant energy failures in various countries; a major systems failure in South Australia; an Ice Storm in Texas; gas supply issues in Europe…and the list continues.

If we pause for a moment to look back in time, a rather startling reality that emerges is that world electricity consumption has doubled over the last approximately 25 years. Only 25 years! However, we hear a cacophony of extreme-green groups calling for a reduction in electricity use. But electrification is not only rapidly spreading across the globe, the per capita electricity consumption is also increasing. It is totally reasonable to expect such a trend. Bitcoin mining alone is now consuming more electricity than Austria, Chile, or Belgium.

Can one honestly imagine that world electricity consumption will reduce in the future? All realistic indications appear to project that consumption will continue rising on the current curve. So consumption should at least double in the next 25 years. For the African region, one can expect that the increased consumption will occur even more rapidly than that.

Disturbingly, we see emotional, rather unrealistic energy debates taking place at meetings of such groups like the G7; COP26; and more. We hear of appeals to ‘flatten’ the consumption curve. A significant snag is that this all seems to be very Eurocentric in origin.

Let us be very clear; Africa is not like the rest of the world, let alone like Europe. African countries are generally very large in comparison to European countries, and in addition, there are many geographic and societal conditions that are very different. This reality is significant when contemplating electricity-generating systems. A realistic vision includes factors like; planning power lines and fuel transport, in which the distances that have to be covered are not remotely encountered in Europe. In South Africa alone the distance from Pretoria to Cape Town is the same as that from Rome to London.

So, African countries have to find workable solutions for African conditions.

Small nuclear is the answer

An obvious answer is nuclear power. Furthermore, an ideal solution is small nuclear power reactors, now collectively called Small Modular Reactors (SMR). These are about 100 to 300 megawatts in output, compared to a large nuclear power station which can be 2,000 to 4,000 megawatts in output.

Energy in Uranium

SMRs are further divided into two significant categories; those which are water-cooled and those which are gas-cooled. The water-cooled ones need to be placed near a significant water source, but the gas-cooled ones can be placed anywhere. Gas-cooled SMRs really can be placed anywhere you like, because fuel transportation is essentially insignificant.

One SMR uses only one truckload of fuel per year. You can even fly the fuel in by helicopter if you really want to. It can also be stockpiled in quantities to last a couple of years. There is no need for conveyor belts, or railway connections running all day, as is required for a coal-fired plant; or long pipelines for gas. African countries can easily experience major rainstorms which can deliver a huge volume of water in a short time, leading to flash floods that can wash roads and rail lines away, so fuel supply security is most important.

Fuel ball containing Uranium

Any African country is quite capable of running any number of gas-cooled SMRs. An SMR system will fit on a soccer field; it does not need a large area. It is also quite reasonable to plan for an SMR plus its own small radial grid, which can be only 10km or 20km in extent and need not be connected to a large National Grid.

But let us return to considering Eurocentric thinking. There is an obsession with cutting CO2 emissions. Using incorrect science this is called the ‘carbon footprint,’ even though ‘carbon’ is a lump of coal, and the issue of concern to them is the production of carbon dioxide gas, two completely different chemical entities. But putting the incorrect chemistry aside, CO2 emissions have become a major political factor in world discussion. A significant point of concern is; is it at all reasonable to be making decisions on worldwide energy production techniques affecting all countries, if these decisions are being made from a Eurocentric view, but then forced onto African countries?

In their drive to cut back on coal-fired electricity production, a bloc of countries have been pushing for electricity production options that are plain and simply not feasible or practical for most African countries. When scientists and engineers, some years ago, proposed nuclear power as an alternative there was vociferous opposition from extreme-green activist groups. All sorts of spurious arguments were used, like; reactors can have devastating accidents; operating reactors leak radiation; nuclear waste is an unsolved problem; all of which is untrue for all practical considerations.

Why is it that the public is never told that during the notorious Fukushima nuclear reactor incident in Japan that not one single person was killed or even harmed by nuclear radiation? Not one! In contrast, extremists have projected Fukushima as a massive nuclear accident. It was not, it was a conventional industrial accident that cost the owners a lot of money. But the Fukushima drama was primarily driven by emotional media reports and anti-nuclear hysteria, and not by any genuine nuclear radiation harm.

Thankfully, however, the EU, US and others now appear to have come to the realisation that their CO2 reduction goals can only remotely be achieved by the introduction of large-scale nuclear power; worldwide.

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Nuclear is green

Nuclear power emits no CO2. So the EU and other political blocs have now ruled that nuclear is ‘green’ as far as the CO2 emission argument is concerned. This is a very important development because it allows all sorts of green funds; government agencies; banks; and other developers; to financially support nuclear and still fall within their respective environmental rules. Africa has to be thankful for this, even if the Eurocentric ideas which gave rise to the whole drama did not much care about African conditions or concerns.

In the late 20th century, South African electricity planners realised that it was necessary to develop SMRs to be able to build reliable power production points inland far from the ocean, and far from the existing coalfields, which are all clustered in the far Northeast of the country.

South Africa had already, decades earlier, built the world’s most southerly nuclear power station near Cape Town, to supply power from the south. But because it is a large nuclear power station, it uses the ocean for cooling.

So South Africa embarked on the development of a unique gas-cooled SMR called the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). It was designed to use helium gas for cooling, in a continuous loop that goes through the reactor and directly into the turbines. That is excellent technology.

The skilled design team rapidly increased in size to some 2,000 people, including university researchers and others contracted to work on the project. A substantial amount of development money was spent over a period of more than a decade. By the year 2008, the project had reached the point at which it was ready to go ahead with full-scale construction. The world’s nuclear developers had taken note with interest.

Then in 2008, the Subprime mortgage crisis in the US struck, with an impact that not only bankrupted major American banks but also spread its influence to much of the world, doing massive damage to countries as far away as Iceland. South Africa escaped rather lightly, but international banks which had indicated support for the commercialisation of the PBMR were gone overnight. The PBMR project stumbled. Then fate, as decreed by the celestial spheres, aligned in such a manner that South Africa underwent some political upheaval which resulted in a change of government. The new president then put the PBMR aside for a while. The nuclear community thought that this situation would last for a few months. It turned out to be years. The large PBMR team dispersed into other projects.

However, one group formed a private company which then worked on the development of a modified SMR, derived from the PBMR system. It became called the HTMR-100. It was designed to be cheaper and faster to construct than the original PBMR.

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The HTMR-100 nuclear reactor evolution

The original PBMR had a designed outlet-gas temperature of 940°C and the helium coolant travelled in a ‘straight through’ system in which the gas passed through the reactor and directly into the turbines to produce electricity.

The derivative version, the HTMR-100, has an outlet temperature of 750°C and the helium gas passes through the reactor and into a conventional water heat exchanger. The choice of this design direction was an important decision since all sub-assemblies from the heat exchanger down the line can be purchased off-the-shelf from existing suppliers, thereby dramatically reducing development costs. In addition, reducing the outlet temperature from 940°C to 750°C resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of design stress on the entire reactor, meaning that engineering developers could move faster with confidence.

HTMR-100 small nuclear power station

Over the last decade, a great deal of work has been carried out on the HTMR-100. This has all been done with private money. The amount of money was never of the magnitude of a government-funded project, but it was enough to make good progress. Another factor that limited the pace of reactor development was the general worldwide anti-nuclear sentiment which was largely generated by extreme-green activist groups.

But now the tide of anti-nuclear sentiment has turned visibly. Many in the world have taken a serious look at reality and have realised that it is necessary to move away from Alice in Wonderland fantasy solutions. It is realised that if one wants to pursue a goal of curbing CO2 emissions, then the only reliable baseload energy source is nuclear power.

A number of African countries have already, for some years now, been out ahead in the thinking in this respect. Some dozen African countries have formally declared their intention of following a nuclear power future. They have realised that other options which may conceivably work to some degree in Europe, will just never work adequately to develop 21st Century economies in the African context. African leaders of the more than 50 countries of Africa have fully grasped the fact that a fundamental key to national progress is the provision of electricity. Furthermore, it must be reliable high-current electricity which requires minimal attention to keep operating in any location, no matter how remote or how hostile the environment.

HTMR-100 reactor and steam generator

The HTMR-100 team has also developed a smaller version of the reactor, the HTMR-30. An even smaller micro-reactor of 10MW is also under development. Ideas are that such reactors could be placed underground in mines, or at remote telecommunications stations, or used for any other applications which people will undoubtedly come up with.

There is no doubt that the future will bring a variety of different nuclear reactor types and sizes which will be deployed all over the world, for many applications. In fact using only a modicum of imaginative thinking, it is obvious that nuclear power sources will power future bases on the Moon and Mars. For that matter; orbiting space stations as well. Right now the Perseverance Rover which is exploring the surface of Mars is nuclear-powered. The future has arrived.

The ship of the future is docking but many people are waiting at the airport. Those who have the foresight to go to the harbour now, will be at the front of the queue.

Get into the queue

The privately developed HTMR-100 needs immediate funding, to be able to accelerate the current pace of operations, and to build the first full-scale plant. What is also required is potential customers to indicate now their interest in installing such reactors. Simply put, countries need to effectively book their places in the supply queue.

A significant amount of localisation is inherent in building such reactors. Ground works and the pouring of concrete in construction will all be done using local manpower in host countries. The same is true of much of the on-site building activity, therefore meaningful economic activity will be stimulated in any host country.

Nuclear power is the future, and many people are rapidly waking up to this fact. They are now showing the courage to shake off the shackles of much of the emotional anti-nuclear sentiment so loudly spread by the anti-nuclear activists, with their emotional calls and street demonstrations.

It seems that good sense is now emerging, like new growth shoots pushing through the soil in Spring. Let us hope for a bountiful harvest of economic progress.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is Convenor of the Stratek Nuclear Consortium, a coalition of companies, based in Pretoria, South Africa. The engineering Consortium is working on the development of the HTMR-100 Small Modular Reactor system.  Collaboration with other interested parties is welcome.