Are the small modular reactors the future of Africa nuclear program?

Are the small modular reactors the future of Africa nuclear program?

Governments across the continent are developing development policies to become middle-income countries in the medium term. Socio-economic growth is accompanied by an increase in energy demand and the need for a reliable and sustainable energy supply. For industrialized countries that need a clean, reliable and cost-effective source of energy, nuclear power is an interesting option. ” Africa is hungry for energy and nuclear energy could be part of the solution for a growing number of countries, ” says Mikhail Chudakov, Deputy Director General and Head of the Nuclear Energy Department of the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA).

One-third of the nearly 30 countries currently considering nuclear power are in Africa. Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan have already engaged with the IAEA to assess their willingness to embark on a nuclear program. Algeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia are also considering the possibility of nuclear energy. ” Energy is the backbone of any strong development ,” said Nii Allotey, director of the Nuclear Power Institute at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission. ” And where do we get energy? We have hydroelectricity, thermal energy, fossil fuels, and we have local gas, but these resources are diminishing . They are limited because fossil fuels could be depleted by 2030. And prices are volatile.

For Ghana, reliable and cost-effective electricity is the entry point to high value-added growth in the manufacturing and export-oriented sector. For example, the country’s bauxite reserves – the ore used to produce aluminum – are an important source of income, but for the moment, they are exported as raw material. ” We have a smelter, but it does not run at full capacity because electricity is too expensive, ” says Allotey. “If we had profitable electricity, we would not export raw bauxite, but would export molten bauxite at a much higher price. It would be a big step for Ghana. ”

African governments are working to make electricity more accessible. About 57% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa does not have access to electricity. For many, the electricity supply is characterized by frequent power cuts, according to the International Energy Agency, an organization of 30 predominantly industrialized countries that have met a set of energy security criteria.

Kenya is considering nuclear power to meet the demand generated by household connections nationwide, which is expected to make a significant contribution to the 30% increase in electricity demand expected for the country by 2030 ” For a long time in our country, electrification levels were low, but the government has made great efforts to electrify the entire country, ” said Winfred Ndubai, Acting Director of Technical Department of the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board. . ” Even areas considered remote are now dynamic. In the space of about 10 years, we went from an electrification rate of 12% to 60% . Kenya relies mainly on non-fossil fuels for energy; Approximately 60% of the installed capacity comes from hydropower and geothermal energy.

” Nuclear does not go overnight. From the moment a country starts a nuclear power program until the first unit is commissioned, it could take years , “said Milko Kovachev, head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Infrastructure Development Section, who said works with new countries. ” The creation of the necessary nuclear infrastructure and the construction of the first nuclear power plant will take at least 10 to 15 years. A successful nuclear program requires broad political and popular support and a national commitment of at least 100 years, Kovachev added.

This includes engaging in the complete life cycle of a power plant, from construction to power generation and, finally, decommissioning. In addition to time, there is the question of costs. Governments and private operators need to make a significant investment, including projected costs of waste management. Mr Kovachev stressed that ” the government’s investment in developing the necessary infrastructure is modest compared to the cost of the first nuclear power plant. But [it] is still in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. ”

Without adequate funding, nuclear power is not an option. ” Most African countries will find it hard to invest that money in a nuclear energy project ,” says Kovachev. ” But there are financing mechanisms, such as the export agencies of the supplier countries. Leveraging a reliable, carbon-free energy supply when suppliers offer to finance it can make sense for many African countries. ”

Another aspect to take into account is the burden on the country’s electricity grid. Nuclear power plants are connected to a network by which they supply electricity. For a country to be able to introduce nuclear energy safely, the IAEA recommends that the capacity of its network be about ten times greater than that of its future nuclear power plant. For example, a country should already have 10,000 megawatts of capacity to generate 1,000 megawatts of nuclear power. Few countries in Africa currently have a grid of this capacity. ” In Kenya, our installed capacity is 2,400 megawatts, which is too small for large conventional nuclear power plants,” Ndubai said. “The network is expected to increase to accommodate a larger unit, or other options for smaller nuclear power plants should be explored.

One option is to invest in small modular reactors (SMRs), which are among the most promising emerging technologies in nuclear energy. SMRs produce electrical energy up to 300 megawatts per unit, about half of a conventional reactor, and their main components can be factory-built and transported to sites for ease of construction. While SMRs are expected to start their business operations in Argentina, China and Russia between 2018 and 2020, African countries are still wary of such a project. ” One of the things we’re very clear about in introducing nuclear energy is that we do not want to invest in a unique technology ,” says Ndubai. ” If SMRs are an opportunity for us, we would like them to be built and tested elsewhere before introducing them into our country. ”

Joining a regional grid is another option. ” Historically, it was possible to share a common grid between countries,” says Kovachev. But, of course, this requires a regional dialogue. An example of this type of system is the West African Energy Pool, created to integrate the national electricity systems of the Economic Community of West African States into a unified regional electricity market. Another factor that militates against a leap forward towards nuclear energy is the popular rejection of expensive and difficult-to-finance projects. In addition, countries are wary of the fact that, in the event of a nuclear power plant accident, released radioactive material is harmful to the environment and to life.

Although the IAEA does not affect a country’s decision to add nuclear energy to its energy mix, the organization provides technical expertise and other relevant information on safe, secure and sustainable use. countries that opt ​​for nuclear energy. Safety and security are key considerations in the IAEA’s phased approach, a progressive approach designed to assist countries assessing their ability to embark on a nuclear power program. This approach helps them to take into account aspects such as the legal framework, nuclear safety, security, radiation protection, environmental protection and radioactive waste management.

Source: Laura Gil Martínez, IAEA

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Arnaud Lefevre

Arnaud Lefevre is the Chief Executive Officer of Dynatom International. Arnaud is in charge of the international development of the business portfolio.