ISS TODAY OP-ED
Small modular reactors could reduce Africa’s energy deficit but cost and risk remain elements of concern
A new breed of reactors is putting nuclear power within reach of more African countries.
The rapid multiplication of small modular reactor designs could change the landscape of nuclear power development in Africa as elsewhere.
The continent desperately needs more power. The African Development Bank says more than 640 million of the continent’s 1.4 billion people don’t have electricity. Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies, forecasts that this will rise to 657 million by 2030 on current trends.
Many African countries have been toying with the idea of going nuclear to close the gap. But for reasons of cost and other complexities — other than South Africa’s 40-year-old Koeberg plant — only Egypt has taken the plunge. Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom started constructing its first nuclear power plant last year.
Only five countries worldwide have recent experience building and exporting conventional large nuclear power plants: the United States (US), Russia, China, France and South Korea. But in roughly the past year, there has been a bloom in small modular reactor (SMRs) technology. At least 80 new designs have emerged, Ingrid Kirsten and Tony Stott, Senior Research Associates at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, told ISS Today.
These SMRs range from reactors that could fit on a pickup to about 300 megawatts, roughly a third of the size of a traditional reactor. SMRs remain untested and many of the emerging designs are highly conceptual, Stott says. Yet Kirsten notes that the US certified its first SMR design at the end of 2022, so the plant could generate electricity in five years.
Nuclear energy gateway for Africa?
SMRs are putting nuclear power within reach of more African countries, they believe. The reactors could also change international nuclear power station manufacturers’ global and African market prospects.
A few years ago, Rosatom led the field internationally and in Africa. In 2016 about 12 African countries were exploring nuclear power. By the October 2019 Russia-Africa Sochi summit, around 18 African countries had signed cooperation agreements with Rosatom on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
For various reasons, the US and France haven’t actively participated in the market, whereas Rosatom has been selling itself aggressively and offering financing deals, especially to African countries. It is still doing so. Russian president Vladimir Putin told the International Parliamentary Conference in Moscow this month that Russia was ready to offer African countries 100% financing.
But Russia could be about to lose its competitive edge. Kirsten and Stott believe the US, France, China, Canada and the United Kingdom have taken the lead in SMR technology.
For Africa, SMRs offer three main advantages, they say: lower cost, faster construction and enhanced inherent and passive safety features. For example, some could be pre-fabricated in the producing nation, cutting costs of developing nuclear engineering skills required for conventional plants.
And whereas it takes on average 10 to 15 years to construct a conventional nuclear power station, an SMR could be deployed in five in a country that already has nuclear power. Stott says it could take longer — between five and 12 years — in a developing country with little or no nuclear power experience.
This is partly because of the relative lack of nuclear skills and also the elaborate legal and regulatory regimes that must be created to address safety requirements. This is to avoid radiation accidents, protect nuclear material and prevent nuclear proliferation (the diversion of fissile material for illegal military use).
In Africa, the next country to produce nuclear power, after Egypt, will probably be Ghana, Kirsten and Stott say. It has run a nuclear research reactor for some years, acquiring experience in technology and regulation. With support from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ghana has completed the first phase and successfully transitioned into Phase 2 of the three-stage IAEA Milestones Approach. This guides countries through the development of national infrastructure needed for nuclear power.
So Ghana has been through all the preparations, including establishing the bureaucracy to “enable the government to make a knowledgeable decision on whether to continue and commit to a nuclear power programme,” Kirsten and Stott said in their recent report. The report offered Ghana as an example to other countries contemplating nuclear power.
While Ghana has a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, Stott notes that it hasn’t decided on what nuclear technology it wants — and whether to opt for a conventional large plant or an SMR. He believes it might choose an SMR, with the option of adding modules later if needed. He and Kirsten believe Kenya or Uganda could be the next African countries to go nuclear.
And a lot more are coming up, they say, though they will probably wait to see how SMRs perform in their countries of origin. Not everyone is convinced. Apart from general concerns about radiation, proliferation and disposal of toxic wastes, nuclear opponents contest the argument that SMRs are a cheaper option.
“The reason nuclear reactors have been getting larger over time is simply the economies of scale,” Koeberg Alert Alliance energy activist Peter Becker told ISS Today. “Large nuclear reactors are already one of the most expensive technologies, and SMRs were always set to be more expensive than that. What’s more, the cost estimates for SMRs such as the NuScale model keep going up — they have risen by over 50% since 2021.
“Since it has become near impossible to get approval for the eye-watering capital costs of a large nuclear plant, SMRs are an attempt to reduce the per unit cost. However, the cost per kWh is far too high for them to ever be competitive without massive government subsidies.’
And won’t renewables anyway soon make SMRs or any other nuclear technology obsolete? Kirsten thinks not. She believes the benefits of renewables and the disadvantages of nuclear have been exaggerated in the current political climate. On the face of it, solar power seems Africa’s obvious choice. But Kirsten says that to equal nuclear’s power output, solar panels would have to cover vast expanses, creating large environmental challenges.
She and Stott also cite the familiar point that renewable power doesn’t contribute to the electricity base load because it is intermittent. Cilliers agrees. “Renewables can’t provide the base load for industrialisation and efforts such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, which are all energy-intensive.”
“I’m in favour of renewable energy,” says Stott. “I’m just not in favour of saying it can do everything. It can’t. Each country has to choose its own mix … and in our opinion nuclear should be part of that.” Kirsten says the global energy crisis seems to have created the opportunity to accelerate the development and deployment of SMRs.” DM
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.
First published by ISS Today.