Nuclear power can speed progress in the developing world

12 November 2020

If the world is to win the fight against climate change, it is vital that developing countries, including those on the African continent, adopt low-carbon electricity systems that can also keep pace with increased demand created by population growth. This was the message of Philippe Costes, senior advisor to the director general of World Nuclear Association, to participants in the Power & Electricity World Africa 2020 conference held on 6 November.

Philippe Costes, senior advisor to the director general of World Nuclear Association (Image: WNA)

Africa's population is projected to double by 2050 and the International Energy Agency's (IEA's) African Energy Outlook 2019 foresees a quadruple to eightfold increase in the continent's electricity demand.

Nuclear energy is "already a reality" in Africa and many African countries are planning or contemplating the deployment of reactor units, Costes said. Nuclear power is "part of the solution" along with other clean energy sources that can provide for "a quicker and more cost-effective energy transition". It also provides "huge socio-economics benefits" that sustain national and regional growth.

"Nuclear power is enjoying a sustained growth in capacity at the fastest rate in 25 years," he said. "A lot of that growth is and will take place in China and India, where nuclear is directly avoiding some fossil use. Many countries are introducing it for the first time - Bangladesh, Belarus, the UAE and Turkey. They are already in the process of building their first reactors and many more countries, especially in Africa, are considering nuclear for their electricity needs."

To sustain a strong industry and economic development, electricity has to be available on a 24/7 basis, and neither industry nor households can bear the intermittency of system failure in supply, he stressed.

"One should note that the IEA emphasises energy efficiency a lot in its Africa case scenario, but there are some considerations now that it might be difficult to get all those savings. That would mean more power is needed. Now come the choices: How to achieve such an increase in power? What kind of technologies and grid infrastructure for clean, reliable and affordable electricity?"

Hydropower is followed by nuclear, wind and then solar in terms of equivalent carbon content per KWh, according to data compiled by ADEME (Agence de la transition écologique), meaning that hydropower is the most efficient source of clean electricity, Costes notes. Its deployment is very much constrained, however, since only a limited number of sites are available for sustainable projects, he said.

Despite its attributes, nuclear suffers from "a strong misconception" about its impact on human health, he said. "The facts show that the nuclear industry has the best track record in terms of fatalities per terawatt hour, far lower than any other source of energy - be it fossil or renewable. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reported that the Chernobyl accident accounted for fewer than 100 deaths, while radioactivity from the Fukushima accident caused zero deaths," he added.

Another myth about nuclear power concerns waste, he said, even though the industry is "the most scrutinised" and has the highest standards in terms of tracking and disposal of its wastes. The actual volume of nuclear waste is very low compared to any other industry, he said, and technologies such as deep geological repositories are being demonstrated, with the first of these, in Finland, expected to be in operation within the next few years.

From a societal perspective, energy sources are often compared by the levelised cost of electricity, he said. However, this measures only the total cost of electricity produced by a plant and ignores the services this provides to the grid, he added, but "even without a carbon price and without consideration of system costs, nuclear is a cheap option compare to fossil and to some renewables".

The achievement of renewables in reducing emissions is often exaggerated, he said. In 1997, 63% of power came from fossil fuels and 37% from low-carbon hydro and nuclear power, but in 2018 this ratio was still unchanged. What did change in between those years was a rise in energy consumption and, with it, an increase in emissions.

"In spite of the billions invested worldwide in renewables, so far the main contributors to avoiding CO2 emissions have been hydro and nuclear," Costes said. "Since 1970 till now, hydro and nuclear helped avoid the emission of 170 gigatonnes equivalent of CO2 emissions, while all other low-CO2 sources that have been developing since the 1990s represent, so far, less than 15 gigatonnes ," he added.

This fact supports, he said, a consideration of low-carbon electricity sources collectively, including renewables, nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture utilisation and storage.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe is preparing a report to help developing countries find the pathways for their electricity systems that also support the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. These include eliminating poverty, zero hunger, clean water, affordable energy economic growth and industry innovation. UNECE highlights SDG 7 - energy as being central to nearly every major challenge the world faces today.

The report explores nuclear energy in the future sustainable energy mix, and looks at its current contribution of 10% to global electricity supply from 450 operational reactors in 30 countries around the world.

"Given the urgent need to promote economic recovery, to achieve the SDGs and to limit climate change, the World Nuclear Association calls on policymakers to consider nuclear and its socio-economic, environmental and public health benefits in any energy transition plan, and enact policies to ensure the realisation of the many benefits of nuclear energy," Costes said.

"They should also accelerate the implementation of the 108 reactor projects that are already planned by governments, and ensure the long-time operation of the 290 reactors which have been operational for 30+ years. They should unlock finance by providing the appropriate frameworks that will drive investment and provide better value for consumers. And they should encourage the multilateral banks to reconsider nuclear and adopt a technology neutral approach for low-carbon solutions, especially in developing countries."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News