Viewpoint: Why the USA should partner with Africa to deploy advanced reactors

11 January 2019

There is growing interest in nuclear power across several African countries. The USA could be more engaged to create more equitable and sustainable deployment of clean nuclear power on the African continent, write Jessica Lovering and Kenton de Kirby of the Breakthrough Institute.

The Kenyan capital, Nairobi (Image: Pixabay)

Of the 30 countries identified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as interested in nuclear power programmes, one-third are in Africa. Although the first commercial nuclear plant in these countries may be decades away, now is the time for potential international partners to start taking Africa's nuclear power ambitions seriously.

South Africa is the only country with an operating commercial nuclear power plant on the African continent, but it's far from the only one with an active nuclear science and technology sector. Nuclear research or medical reactors are operating in Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa. And many countries are starting to explore international partnerships to import and build their first commercial nuclear power plants. Many of these agreements will likely change, but we recognise at least 11 African nations whose nuclear energy ambitions deserve ongoing attention.

But the ambitions and preparations of African nations for nuclear power are matched by serious obstacles. The challenges of starting a commercial nuclear programme - controlling costs, building the necessary infrastructure, resolving water scarcity, and ensuring sufficient highly skilled human resources - can be daunting for any country, much less a developing one.

Playing nuclear leapfrog

If nuclear's advantages are to materialise in African countries, its deployment will in all likelihood need to follow a different path than it took in the developed world. The history of nuclear power in the developed world is the story of large-scale light-water reactors (LWRs), which are expensive to build, water-hungry, and require huge grid capacity. The deployment of traditional LWRs in developing African nations, therefore, will need to anticipate and address these challenges.

Fortunately, advanced nuclear reactor technology, such as small modular reactors (SMRs), could dramatically reduce these countervailing forces - provided there was an international export market that made them available.

Several US companies are pursuing SMRs with capacities up to 300 MWe that can be manufactured in a factory and transported to the power plant site for deployment by ship, train, or truck. Because of their much smaller size and factory fabrication, they are projected to have lower capital costs and shorter construction times than LWRs. And due to their modularity, additional units can be added to meet growing demand and as grid capacity permits.

The most mature SMR design in the USA comes from the company NuScale Power, which has submitted its design for licensing and is looking to start construction in the early 2020s for its first commercial customer, the Utah Associated Municipal Power System. Of particular promise in the African context are new SMR designs with integrated desalination facilities to provide clean water for drinking or agriculture. In South Korea, the SMART Power Company is marketing a 100 MWe SMR that can also produce some 10 million gallons of potable water every day. Jordan and Saudi Arabia have both shown interest in deploying this technology.

A small number of US and European companies are also working on extremely small modular reactors, or microreactors, which have capacities of 20 MWe or less and can operate for up to 10 years without refueling. The owners and operators of these reactors, sometimes dubbed "nuclear batteries," do not have to handle fueling or maintenance, thus making them suitable for African countries that lack a technical workforce with training in nuclear technology. Microreactors could also be a good option for off-grid industrial and mining operations, which are often the largest energy consumers in developing countries.

Using already proven reactor technology, several companies are developing floating and stationary offshore nuclear plant designs, using either SMRs or traditional large LWRs mounted on vessels or offshore platforms. These nuclear plants have easier access to cooling water, and their location away from land makes them not subject to damage from hazards such as tsunamis and earthquakes, which could make them easier to license from a safety perspective.

Yet another advanced design under development is the high-temperature gas reactor (HTGR). Because these reactors use gas rather than water as their primary coolant, they operate at much higher temperatures and thus much higher efficiencies, making them smaller and vastly reducing water demand. They also use a ceramic fuel that can withstand significantly higher temperatures, making a meltdown extremely unlikely.

African countries have expressed great interest in the potential use of such advanced reactor designs, but in interviews with representatives from state utilities and atomic energy agencies, they insist that they need proven technology. With no desire to be the world's guinea pig for untested nuclear technologies, these countries want the new reactors to be first built and operated successfully in their country of origin.

Mutually beneficial partnerships

Although advanced reactors hold great promise, the countries that dominate the African nuclear export market - overwhelmingly Russia and China - are offering only traditional LWRs.

The world's other nuclear exporters - including the USA, Canada, and France, which dominated global exports historically - have minimal roles in Africa, if any. The USA's retreat from fostering nuclear power in Africa, or anywhere really, has been magnified of late with the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, which was the main US nuclear vendor bidding for projects abroad.

Yet the USA still has an opportunity to help interested African nations overcome the obstacles to realising their energy ambitions. The USA has a robust and thriving private sector for advanced nuclear development, drawing on both decades of public research and development and a high-tech investment ecosystem. From large national laboratories to small venture-backed start-ups, the USA has over 50 firms working on a diverse portfolio of advanced nuclear designs, many targeting smaller or niche markets.

The US government should pave the way for advanced nuclear companies to market their products in Africa. This means signing bilateral agreements much earlier with African nations sincerely interested in nuclear power, without which US nuclear companies will have trouble getting approval to collaborate, share information, or export nuclear technology with these nations.

Finally, the government should tackle one of the largest barriers to the development of nuclear power in newcomer countries: opposition from international financing institutions, including the World Bank, which have long-standing, explicit policies against funding nuclear power projects. The US government should lobby these institutions to change such policies in light of new technologies and business models.

There is a future in which innovative US nuclear companies develop mutually beneficial partnerships with African nations, deploying advanced nuclear technology that better matches their needs - simultaneously helping US companies make their technologies cheaper and fueling Africa's economic development without contributing to climate change. Realising this synergy, however, will take work, but the potential payoff for all parties would be well worth it.

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in Issues in Science and Technology, Volume 35, No.2 (Winter 2019), pp84–89.

Jessica Lovering is the director of the energy programme at the Breakthrough Institute and a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University. Kenton de Kirby is the content director at the Breakthrough Institute.