07 October 2011

Africa and Nuclear Power: Could it Ever Work?

Subsaharan Africa is rich in minerals, oil, coal, and gas. From Nigeria to Angola to Ghana to South Africa, dictators are growing rich from diamonds, gold, and petroleum production. But the wealth never seems to trickle down to the people of SS Africa. Instead it is too often transferred to Swiss bank accounts, for purposes of conspicuous consumption by the African ruling classes traveling in Europe.

Subsaharan African countries are considered to be in desperate need of reliable electric power, as a starting point to build a more advanced civilisation. Many well-meaning people have suggested the use of nuclear power for Africa. Uranium is certainly abundant in Africa. But given the near-impossibility of finding trained African nuclear scientists, engineers, technicians, etc. for safe operation of a nuclear plant, how are African countries supposed to control the nuclear dragon? Even newer, safer modular reactors meant to operate relatively unattended while buried underground will still require significant oversight and security. And a new, more complex power grid will require a whole new level of maintenance and operating skill. Can Africans do it?

An optimistic article from Engineering News South Africa suggests that nuclear energy may be exactly what Africa needs. Here is an excerpt from the article:
Increasing electricity provision in developing nations results in almost instantaneous social upliftment of developing populations, as a direct result of increased economic growth.

However, electricity provision across the vast expanses of the African continent requires unique ‘African’ solutions, which original-equipment providers in places such as Europe seldom can provide, he said.

Kemm believes the answer lies in radial power supplies, using smaller electricity grids. This would entail the construction of smaller-scale power plants such as what would possibly have been achieved with the shelved Pebble Bed Modular Reactor project.

“Transporting electricity over long distances is wasteful, owing to energy losses and the maintenance of the associated infrastructure. Placing smaller power plants closer to the point of consumption is the ideal scenario for optimal energy efficiency,” he pointed out.

Further, the power source should be as reliable as possible, something Kemm said alternative power sources could not always guarantee.

He explained that wind power, for example, was not a reliable source of energy, owing to high capital costs and that the average output fluctuated severely with the seasons. Wind turbines were said to be less efficient at reduced wind speeds and could not take advantage of higher-than-optimal wind speeds, owing to maintenance concerns.

“France achieves the cheapest cost for electricity, owing to its significant reliance on nuclear power, whereas Belgium, one of the countries with the most installed wind turbines, has some of the most expensive electricity in the world.”

Meanwhile, Kemm believes that Africa needs African solutions for African needs. He pointed out that a small country such as Rwanda’s electricity consumption peaks at about 87 MW, whereas a medium-sized city such as East London consumes about 100 MW at peak levels.

The country does not have sufficient natural fossil fuel resources to feed, for example, a coal-fired power station, and cannot rely on such fuel to be reliably transported across numerous borders.

“A small-scale nuclear power plant would, in such a scenario, provide the ideal solution to long-term sustainable electricity supply to catapult the country’s growing economy into high-gear,” he explained.

Kemm argued that the key to unlocking economic development lies in providing a country with the cheapest possible electricity. It does not matter what the source is, whether it be from fossil fuels, locally available recyclable materials that could be used to generate small amounts of electricity, or alternative energy sources. _Engineering News
It is worth reading further at the link above, for a more enlightened view of climate change than one is likely to read in most mainstream media outlets. Clearly the physicist Dr. Kemm is not worried about being attacked by the South African PC Thought Police anytime soon, by his tone.

Certainly if one plans to take nuclear power to Africa, using small modular reactors (SMRs) in a decentralised pattern of implementation as described, is the most logical approach. But even in such a situation where small scale power grids connected to SMRs are utilised, the requirement for at least a minimal level of expertise in operation and maintenance cannot be overlooked.

In South Africa, the unique demographic pattern (for SS Africa) combined with an above-average educational system, has allowed the continuation of a modicum of a high tech infrastructure to be maintained, long after the abolition of the unjust Apartheid system. But most of SS Africa is without the human capital which South Africa still possesses -- in spite of its corrupt and inept ANC government.

Here is the cold hard truth for most of SS Africa: Outside corporations or nations will need to install new electrical power infrastructure in Africa, and outside expertise will be needed to safely and reliably operate and maintain the new infrastructure -- both the generator complexes and the new power grids.

Corporations such as Westinghouse, with its small modular reactor, could install small generation facilities for individual nations, and help to contract the construction of new grid infrastructure. As long as the oil and mineral dictators of Africa were willing to forego some of their conspicuous overseas consumption for the benefit of a more advanced society where average citizens could benefit, such an arrangement might be made safely.

The problem lies with the long term requirements of advanced nuclear and electrical infrastructure. African dictators will grow tired of paying outsiders to maintain their power systems, and will start to cut corners in operations and maintenance. Required upgrades will not be implemented, the systems will be pushed beyond tolerances, and will ultimately fail. At that point, will shutdown, decommissioning, and cleanup be performed according to accepted standards? Probably not.

Let's be honest: If South Africa -- the most advanced of SS African nations -- cannot keep its power grid running reliably through the winter with its great mineral and energy wealth, how can anyone expect the lesser SS nations to achieve this goal?

Professor Kemm's idea for decentralised power in Africa is a good one, but he did not go far enough, perhaps. The buildup of large African cities requires a support infrastructure that cannot be provided or maintained by native SS Africans. In other words, African cities and large scale industrial infrastructure are not sustainable, using only local talent and workers.

That is the key underlying problem that has to be addressed sooner or later. South Africa can perhaps hobble along for decades longer, based upon its legacy human capital. But other SS nations cannot. For those nations, a back to the basics approach to energy and fuels will be mandatory, if they wish to avoid disaster.

And that means bioenergy, as the core energy technology. Bioenergy will be labour intensive in SS Africa, which is a good thing. And it will provide for the scalable power and fuels production which SS Africa demands.

Unfortunately, outsiders will not leave Africa alone. It is this outside influence which has caused the problematic population explosion within Africa, and which has pushed Africans into cities that are too large for them to maintain in a safe and reliable manner.

This unstable urbanisation of Africa calls for ever more outside involvement to manage the instabilities, which will ultimately lead to even greater instabilities yet, requiring even more outside involvement, . . . . and so it goes until disaster happens.

The one thing that would save Africa is the thing that is unlikely to occur for a few more decades: a cheap, reliable, readily disseminated means for increasing the average IQ for large populations. Since that is unlikely to come along before the crisis point, powerful people in NGOs, the World Bank, the IMF, the UN, the EU, and other powerful international organisations, are likely to consider other solutions -- perhaps a UN program of forced sterilisation concealed within a mass immunisation program? Difficult to say.

The key point here is simply that one does not try to take populations from a 15th century existence directly to a 21st century existence without first ascertaining that the technology being utilised is appropriate for the populations involved. For most of SS Africa, there is no current form of nuclear energy that is appropriate. Perhaps in the future, that will change.

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