The Center for Global Development recently published a new report, Atoms for Africa, discussing how there is more interest in nuclear energy among African countries than the rest of the world realizes.
Co-authored by Jessica Lovering, Director of Energy at the Breakthrough Institute, and three Fellows - Abigail Sah, Omaro Maseli, and Aishwarya Saxena – the report outlines how new nuclear technologies can accelerate deployment and solve fears like meltdowns and weapons proliferation.But without U.S. and international financial support for nuclear projects on that continent, African governments will be forced to partner with Russia and China.
China is investing billions in Africa, mostly in traditional infrastructure like roads, rail and ports, and is now the continent’s biggest trading partner. China is developing a variety of nuclear reactors, small and large, that can be tailor-made for applications across Africa.
Their latest initiative, called the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project is China’s ambitious plan to pass America in global political and economic influence, basically a 21st century version of the 2,000-year-old Silk Road. And they are succeeding. Africa has 1.2 billion people in 54 countries living on 12 million square miles. The economies of these countries are hobbled by a general dearth of energy. Poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, inadequate water supply and sanitation, as well as poor health, affect a large proportion of the people who reside on the African continent, especially sub-Saharan.
The United Nations has quantified the effects of having, or not having, access to sufficient energy, called the Human Development Index. It tracks the close relationship between per capita energy use and quality of life (see figure). According to the HDI, humans need about 3,000 kilowatt hours per year per person to have what we consider a good life. Americans average 12,000 kWhs/yr, but 70 percent of the world’s 7.5 billion people are well below 3,000 kWhs/yr.
Access to energy is essential to quality of life. It takes about 3,000 kWhs/person/year to have what we consider a good life. Above 0.9 on the U.N. Human Development Index (HDI) means a good life. Below 0.6 HDI is bad. 70% of the world’s population of 7.5 billion people is below 0.8 on the HDI. If we move everyone in the world below 0.8 up into the region between 3,000 to 6,000 kWhs per year, and move us energy fat cats down to 6,000, it will take only 35 trillion kWhs per year to eradicate global poverty. The big question is how to do that without trashing the environment.
If we move everyone in the world who is below 0.8 HDI up into the region between 3,000 to 6,000 kWhs per year, and move us energy fat cats down to 6,000, it will take about 35 trillion kWhs per year to eradicate global poverty. That will be hard to do without ramping up nuclear.
According to the International Energy Agency, 625 million people in Africa do not have access to electricity, while another estimated 730 million Africans use dirty and potentially hazardous fuels to cook, mostly inappropriate solid biomass. The average per capita residential electricity consumption is less than 350 kWh per year, placing them below 0.5 on the HDI.
Despite having a population almost twenty times larger, the 48 sub-Saharan countries generate about the same amount of power as Spain, a mere 83 GW of total grid-connected generation capacity, with South Africa alone accounting for more than half of that. Not surprisingly, South Africa is the only country in Africa with a commercial nuclear power plant.
The reality of energy poverty poses a particularly thorny paradox for those who also care about the climate and the environment. On the one hand, most believe in helping the world’s poor. On the other hand, moving billions of people into the middle class in the coming decades, without a realistic plan for ramping up non-carbon energy sources, will mean a drastic rise in fossil fuel use since fossil fuels are still the most plentiful source of energy on the planet.
Almost 90% of the energy currently used in developing countries comes from coal, oil and gas. Keep in mind that coal is the easiest power plant to build in a poor country with little existing infrastructure. It’s not the best. It’s not the cheapest. It’s just the easiest.
Without fundamental changes in how the world produces energy, global use of fossil fuels will effectively double by 2040. This process has already played out in China, where six hundred million people were lifted out of poverty in less than twenty years—a development that has coincided with China’s emergence as the world’s biggest carbon emitter.
The single most important issue at COP21, and every climate meeting since 1990, is how to give these people energy without giving them coal.
Enter next generation nuclear power. Nuclear has the greatest potential to provide a clean baseload of energy, minimizing carbon emissions while simultaneously alleviating energy poverty. Significant challenges remain, like high capital cost, long timelines, weak institutions, and proliferation concerns.
But leading climate change experts, including Jim Hansen and other top researchers, have warned that we cannot accomplish any of our climate goals without a significant boost in nuclear energy. So we have to figure out how to do this. And soon.
There is reason for optimism. As the Center for Global Development enumerates, small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced nuclear technologies could improve the feasibility of developing commercial nuclear power in African countries. With new designs, African countries can leapfrog over the large-scale, traditional light-water nuclear technologies to nuclear reactors that are smaller, modular, more flexible, easier to finance, construct, and operate, and overall more appropriate to Africa’s needs.
Africa also has plentiful natural supplies of uranium.
In 2015, representatives from Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Tunisia and Uganda began preliminary plans to set up the Enhancing Nuclear Power Programme Development, aimed at strengthening and building capacity across the African continent for the planning, development, and management of nuclear power infrastructure and programs.
As Suzy Baker from Third Way points out, without early engagement from the United States' nuclear industry in Africa, we will miss out on strategic partnerships in these countries that could last decades. The United States needs a lot more than a bi-lateral agreement to compete with Russia, South Korea, and China on international nuclear bids.
We will also need support with export control and financing, but we need commercial advanced nuclear products that meet the changing needs of new markets. That will require a host of innovation policies that we've seen work in other sectors.
The Atoms for Africa report goes through the continent country by country, subject by subject, reactor design by reactor design, strategy by strategy, to lay out a logical discussion of how nuclear could alleviate some of the worst problems in the most energy-poor region of the world.
It is well worth the read.