Africa’s Nuclear Energy Hopefuls Learning From South Africa

By D.A. Barber AFKI Original Published: October 21, 2014, 2:56 am
Koeberg nuclear station Photo: EskomKoeberg nuclear station Photo: Eskom

South Africa has started seriously shopping around for companies to build eight new nuclear power plants totaling up to 9,600 megawatts by 2030 as part of their estimated $37 billion nuclear expansion program.

The process has been dragging on for years and is a good lesson in what the other sub-Saharan Africa countries who have expressed interest in nuclear power might experience as they move forward.

The International Energy Agency’s Oct. 13 Africa Energy Outlook report states that “the introduction of nuclear power brings many challenges, not least of which is the very large upfront capital investment required, the need to develop technical and regulatory capacity, and to have the electricity demand and infrastructure capacity to absorb the resulting baseload supply.”

According to the World Nuclear Association, countries actively considering nuclear power programs include Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Namibia,  Sudan, Uganda and Namibia, while countries already developing plans include Nigeria and Kenya.

Because population areas are growing significantly, those countries “need a safe, secure and most importantly, clean source of electricity, so they’re interested in nuclear,” Daniel S. Lipman, Nuclear Energy Institute’s Executive Director, Policy Development and Supplier Programs told AFKInsider.

Open For Business

During August’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the U.S.-based Nuclear Energy Institute hosted a delegation of African leaders from Niger, Namibia and South Africa to discuss nuclear energy development.

“The take-away was primarily that nuclear has a role to play in the electrification of Africa,” Lipman told AFKInsider. “The strong message that the Africans gave us was that Africa is open for business and they’re going to have nuclear power no matter what,” says Lipman.

South Africa’s participation in the Nuclear Energy Institute meeting is understandable, but Namibia and Niger are also considering nuclear because they both have the fuel to power the plants.

The Africa Energy Outlook notes that sub-Saharan Africa “includes three of the ten-largest uranium resource-holders in the world,” which include Namibia and Niger.

According to the International Energy Agency, while Namibia gets half its electric power from South Africa, it also holds about 8.2 percent of the world’s uranium reserves mined from two sites to fuel nuclear power stations around the world. For this reason, Namibia’s government has committed to a goal of supplying its own electricity from nuclear power.

Niger also has two uranium mines which supplies about 7.7 percent of the world’s uranium. In May 2014, Niger and French nuclear power plant builder AREVA signed a 5-year agreement for operating those mines.

But Nuclear Energy Institute’s Lipman says there are still opportunities for American companies to get involved.

“They want to see American companies participate and they were very clear that our competitors are there,” Lipman told AFKInsider. “Whether it’s the Russians, Koreans, the Chinese, or the French, they’re there now; they’re cultivating those relationships,” says Lipman.

Learning from South Africa

The sub-Saharan Africa countries who have expressed interest in nuclear power need only look to South Africa to see the challenges that may lie ahead.

While the newly-signed South African nuclear pacts set the framework for foreign suppliers to bid on the new nuclear build in a fair, competitive and cost effective manner.

The South Africa Department of Energy signed nuclear energy technology cooperation pacts with Russia on September 20 and announced another with France on Oct 10. The energy department already has a nuclear pact with the U.S. and will soon finalize pacts China and Japan, uses these to set the procurement guidelines for foreign suppliers to bid on the nuclear program.

But even this preparatory phase has draw critical fire.

The recent nuclear pact announcement with Russia – which was erroneously reported in the media as an exclusive deal with Russia to start building – came as public distrust around any new nuclear projects had been gaining impetus in the country because of the perceived secrecy and the enormous costs.

Led by Greenpeace Africa and Johannesburg-based environmental justice organization Earthlife Africa, those concerns were echoed on Oct. 1 by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which emphatically rejects nuclear power due to cost and safety concerns of long-term radioactive waste, and by an Oct. 20 statement from Southern African Faith communities’ Environment.

With the only operating nuclear power plants in Africa, South Africa has run two French-built AREVA reactors since1984 at the Koeberg site east of Cape Town which provide about 5 percent of the country’s power.

Wanting more power, state-owned utility Eskom launched development of a German-designed “pebble bed” modular reactor in 1998. But running over budget and hopelessly behind schedule, the government pulled the plug in September 2010 after investing $1.3 billion.

Nevertheless, the Department of Energy published a Revised Strategic Plan in February 2012 for six more nuclear power units by 2030 to help reduce the country’s 80 percent reliance on coal-fired power plants.

Today, critics point out that a November 2013 update of that energy plan concludes “demand projections suggest that no new nuclear base-load capacity is required until after 2025 and that there are alternative options.”

AREVA, Electricite de France, China’s Guangdong Nuclear Power and Korea Electric Power Corp. have all expressed interest in building the new nuclear power plants. So has Westinghouse Electric Corp., though the company is already feeling sour grapes over a related deal.

Eskom, after initially choosing Westinghouse Electric, announced in August that six steam electric generators at its Koeberg nuclear power plant would be replaced by French firm AREVA under a $381 million contract. Westinghouse, part of Japan’s Toshiba group, filed a legal challenge to have the bidding process reopened even though Eskom said the matter final.

Though Westinghouse withdrew in early September, the company set the stage for a long legal battle by reviving its challenge on September 29.

Distributed Generation Possibilities

Nuclear Energy Institute’s Lipman says there is an opportunity for using smaller nuclear power plants to power regional grid development.

“Africa is a continent where there are a pretty wide dispersion and diversity of people and where and how they live. So there’s an opportunity for distributed generation, which means smaller nuclear plants like small modular reactors that can be located in more remote areas,” Lipman told AFKInsider.

Because small modular reactors, or SMRs, are less expensive and easier to build, the United States hopes to become a major exporter of the technology for use in small cities and groups of villages.

Though still in the development, commercialization of small modular reactors – defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as those with an electricity output of less than 300 megawatts compared to large reactors that produce over 1,000 megawatts – is a priority for the U.S. Department of Energy.

“There is both a domestic and international market for SMRs, and U.S. industry is well positioned to compete for these markets,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Lipman says another big take-away of the August Nuclear Energy Institute meeting was that “there might be places in western Africa where a plant can serve one, two or three different countries.”

“In other words, there are borders that lend themselves to building grids that connect population sectors across different borders,” Lipman told AFKInsider.

“And when you do that, grid stability; grid size; grid location – they allow for citing of nuclear plants not just in a particular country, but for where different countries share in the nuclear plant,” says Lipman.

But Worldwatch Institute’s Ochs asks: “Who is going to invest?”

“Their own utilities are not capable of it, and the reason why is simply the technology is too expensive; they can not compete,” Ochs told AFKInsider.

Fiscal Questions

The nuclear energy renaissance has been stalled for years, according to a Worldwatch Institute analysis.

And according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014 released in August, 75 percent of nuclear reactors under construction worldwide are facing costly delays. The report reveals that through Sept. 15, 2014, at least three out of four (49 of 66) reactors under construction globally were running behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

“Of all the mainstream technology sources – renewable, fossil fuels, conventional, unconventional – of all the sources, the only one with negative growth is nuclear power,” Worldwatch Institute’s Ochs told AFKInsider.

While Africa needs power now, the build-out for a typical nuclear power plant could take as much as 20 years. And no small modular reactors have been commercially built yet.

“From an economic perspective, it makes no sense,” Ochs told AFKInsider. “These countries where you have renewable energy potential – where you have resources for sun and wind and often also hydro and biomass that are better than in any other place on the planet, why would you go nuclear?”

Despite the nearly dozen or so emerging sub-Saharan countries expressing interest in a nuclear power option, “they are not expected to contribute very much to the expansion of nuclear capacity in the foreseeable future – the main growth will come in countries where the technology is already well established,” according to the World Nuclear Association.

“However, in the longer term, the trend to urbanization in less-developed countries will greatly increase the demand for electricity, and especially that supplied by base-load plants such as nuclear.”

Lipman thinks that, like the different mixes of renewable energy that works differently for individual countries, the next generation of nuclear power plants can work well in certain regions of Africa.

“Developing nuclear – it’s not ‘one-size-fits-all’ literally from a power plant perspective and from the energy reprocessing fuel cycle policy,” Lipman told AFKInsider.

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