Big electricity in small mighty packages


There is a graph which shows the relationship between the GDP of a country and its electricity consumption. There is a direct correlation. Quite simply; the greater the electricity consumption the greater the GDP. All countries fall on the ascending line, no exceptions. Therefore, a country like Ghana should have an objective of doubling its electricity consumption as soon as possible, and then doubling it again. Of course, one assumes the efficient use of electricity, not irresponsible wastage.

Then the question arises; where does this electricity come from?

In many African countries, electricity has been produced by hydroelectricity. But this is a potential problem.

A country like Norway produces a significant amount of reliable hydroelectricity. But there is a huge difference between their circumstances and ours, the people like us who live in Africa. In Norway there are many deep natural ravines to use to dam water. Also they have a guaranteed supply of water, and even ice and snow build-up seasonally, which is an additional store of water and which runs into the dams as it melts.

Most African countries do not have many natural geological structures with the required height to act as dams, and worse; there definitely is usually not a guaranteed water supply. In fact, in Africa, long droughts occur frequently which means that water levels in dams can drop to 25% or less. Such variability in water levels is, of course, a disaster for trying to produce reliable hydro power. A highly variable height of water in a dam, of course, drastically negatively affects electricity generation. In other words, it is not reliable or adequate.

To run a modern economy, one needs a reliable baseload electricity supply, which just runs day and night without interruption.

The answer for African countries is nuclear power.

In this respect the most important nuclear development over the last number of years, has been the evolution of the reactor class called: Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). South Africa was the first country in the world to start developing a commercial SMR. Furthermore, the reactor was specifically designed for South African and African conditions. It was designed for the dry, dusty conditions of Africa. It was designed for the long distances and inaccessible roads that are common.

The SMR class is defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as being ‘below 300 Megawatts in size’. Contrast this with a conventional large nuclear power station, which can be anywhere from 2000 to 4000 MW in size.

It is most important to note that SMRs can be divided into two broad categories; those which need a large body of water nearby, and those which don’t. By far the majority of SMR developments in the world right now are the ones which need the water, for cooling. These are known as Generation III technology. The South African Reactor is an advanced Generation IV system, which does not need water. It is cooled by Helium gas and therefore can be placed anywhere you like. It is ideal for a country like Ghana.

An HTMR-100 Small Modular Reactor in an arid African setting such as a mine or remote location.

The South African modern reactor evolution is called the HTMR-100. It is privately owned and has been developed by a company in Pretoria.

It is simple to operate and never needs to be ‘switched off’. It runs continuously. The fuel consists of grains of uranium or thorium, about the size of grains of sugar, which are embedded in a graphite ball about the size of a cricket ball. These balls are added to the top of the reactor and spend about two years moving through the reactor before they are ‘spent’ and then get extracted at the bottom. About half a dozen of these balls will supply enough electricity for a family of four for a decade. Because of the massive amount of nuclear energy locked up in uranium, extremely little fuel is required over a reactor lifetime, which means that a reactor can be re-supplied only four or six times a year, or whatever is convenient for the owners. The owners can decide to keep many months of fuel stockpiled on site if they wish There is no pressure to keep a continuous flow of fuel arriving, as there is with a coal-fired or gas-fired power station, which has to have supplies running 24 hours a day.

Nuclear Fuel Nall for the HTMR-100. This ball contains grains of uranium about the size of sugar grains all embedded in a matrix of graphite. The ball is perfectly safe to hold before it goes into reactor, but when it comes out it is deadly and would kill a person. At that point it can only be handled by machines.

No waste whatsoever comes out of the reactor during normal operation, no ash, no gas, no liquid, no ….nothing! The only waste which comes out is the spent fuel ball at the end of two years, and then it looks exactly the same as when it went in. What you can’t see is that the original uranium atoms have split into other atoms. But the new atoms are all still safely held inside the ball. Only the energy came out.

An entire HTMR-100 will fit on a piece of land the size of a football field, and it can be placed near a mine or any industrial or residential area. It is safe.

It is also classified as ‘green’ as far as the European Union Is concerned, so it is open to being funded from ‘green’ funds.

Small reactors, such as these, are the answer for any African country. African countries are not Europe. The conditions are vastly different. So European solutions, developed for themselves mostly, will not necessarily work here, under the intense African sun, in the often arid conditions where we live. We need African solutions for Africa, developed by ourselves. We need the courage of our convictions to do what is good for our own people.

Ghana, as with all African countries, needs to aim to double its GDP, and for that it needs to double its electricity consumption. There is no other path. Small Modular Reactors are an obvious direction to explore, to get onto this path to a productive future.

Dr  Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is Chairman of Stratek Global, a nuclear project management company based in Pretoria, South Africa. The company carries out strategy development and project planning in a wide variety of fields for diverse clients. [email protected]

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