Russia, China Drive Africa's Plan for Nuclear Expansion

Officials in South Africa and across the African continent continue to explore new nuclear power generation projects, and the region provides an opportunity for other countries to export their advanced nuclear technologies. South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources and Energy in May said it wants a plan to procure as much as 2.5 GW of nuclear generation capacity within the next five years. South Africa today has just two commercial reactors, both at the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station north of Cape Town.

1. The Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, which was commissioned in 1984 and is operated by South Africa state-owned utility Eskom, features two pressurized water reactors, each with 970 MW of generation capacity. Source: Creative Commons / Pipodesign Philipp P. Egli

Koeberg (Figure 1) is the only nuclear power plant currently in commercial operation on the entire African continent, although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently said nearly a dozen other African nations have talked with the IAEA about formulating plans for nuclear power. The World Nuclear Association said at least seven sub-Saharan African states have signed agreements to deploy nuclear power with backing from Russia. Rosatom, the state-owned Russian nuclear company, is “currently working with more than 15 sub-Saharan African countries, including Ghana, Zambia, Kenya, South Africa, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and others; as well as with the following North African countries: Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco,” according to Ryan Collyer, acting CEO of Rosatom Central and Southern Africa, who corresponded with POWER.

Jacob Shapiro, the founder and chief strategist for Austin, Texas-based Perch Perspectives, told POWER that South Africa “will need outside investment” to support an expanded nuclear program, which is likely the case for any African nation. “Investment will come from the same suspects that bid on nuclear projects in South Africa before: Russia, China, France, South Korea, and possibly the United States. Japan may throw its hat into the ring as well, but they have struggled to be competitive in more reliable markets than South Africa, like the UK and Turkey.”

Shapiro continued: “It is hard for me to imagine Russia gaining much traction after [South African President Cyril] Ramaphosa scrapped the previous deal with Rosatom in 2019. That said, domestic politics can change quickly in South Africa and maybe it will be most interested in not getting caught between the U.S. and China, making Russia, South Korea or France better alternatives. This still ultimately comes down to whichever government thinks South Africa is most important to its strategic interests, and that’s clearly China.”

Russia, for its part, said it has a “wide range of technologies to offer” African nations exploring nuclear power. Collyer told POWER those technologies range “from ‘large’ light water reactors [pressurized water reactors or PWRs] with capacity over 1 GW to small modular reactors [SMRs]. We were first to deploy commercial fast neutron reactors and are likely to be first to deploy high temperature gas-cooled reactors. For each country we come up with a solution tailored to the features of the regional electricity market, including the readiness of the distribution grid.”

The Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA) has said there are at least six potential options for financing new nuclear power plants in the country, with Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe telling a parliamentary committee in mid-May he is open to considering innovative funding options in order to develop new nuclear capacity. Support for new nuclear power plants in South Africa dimmed after the ruling party forced Jacob Zuma to resign as president in 2018, and officials had said the country could not afford to build additional plants. It also had been thought the economic issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic would inhibit government-financed energy projects.

However, Mantashe told the country’s lawmakers, “The nuclear build plan will go ahead and we will explore all options.” He said a contract could be awarded to “develop a modular nuclear station on a build, operate, and transfer basis, and that means there will be no immediate call for funding from the state.”

Mantashe’s group, in a presentation to a parliamentary committee about its plans for the next five years, said, “The development of the roadmap for the 2,500-MW nuclear new-build program will be commencing soon.” Shapiro told POWER the most likely investor for that development is China. “China is South Africa’s most important trading partner, an important source of investment, and has been making inroads there for a while,” he said. “However, unlike the last time South Africa sought bids in 2016, the U.S. now views China as a strategic threat and I could see the U.S. government getting involved to push either an America alternative or an ‘anyone but China’ alternative. Think of what the U.S. is doing with Huawei—a similar tactic is possible, especially if President Trump wins again.”

Though China may have an edge in trade with South Africa, Russia is actively pursuing export of its nuclear technology across the continent, as it is doing around the globe. Rosatom has secured more than 30 reactor supply deals in recent years, and in 2019 the company said it had international projects worth $202.4 billion in its portfolio. The company also said it has 36 reactor construction projects outside of Russia at various implementation stages, and already has working agreements with Rwanda, Uganda, the Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia.

“As for South Africa, we have great respect for the path taken by the country in the development of the nuclear industry. We are open to cooperation on the widest range, subject to a request from our South African colleagues,” said Collyer. “Despite the shortcomings of the grid infrastructure in Africa, the latest generation of tried and tested ‘large’ PWRs, which are already being built in series across the globe, are still the clear winners in most regions, this in terms of the cost of electricity compared to any other technology. In Africa, we are able to offer our latest generation PWR-type reactors—the VVER-1200—which is state of the art compared to the previous generation reactors. It is 20% more powerful; the amount of personnel operating the reactor has decreased [by] between 30% and 40%; and the lifetime of the reactor has doubled to 60 years, with the possibility of lasting an additional 20 years.

“Considering the energy needs and peculiarities of energy systems of some African countries, Rosatom may offer its new solution—SMR nuclear power plant [NPP]. Rosatom has extensive experience with small-scale reactors that we have been mastering over many years on nuclear icebreakers, making them as safe and efficient as our flagship large reactors. Our RITM series reactors are the most modern ones, and already have references, as they are installed on board icebreakers of a new class, the first of which is undergoing sea trials,” Collyer said.

The NIASA group said financing options for nuclear power in South Africa include:

    ■ Government funding of the entire project, or government-backed loan guarantees, supported by money from state-owned companies.
    ■ An intergovernmental loan.
    ■ Corporate financing.
    ■ Financing by plant vendors.
    ■ A special investment vehicle to finance the project.
    ■ A “build, own, operate” structure.

The NIASA group said South Africa previously has used the special investment vehicle model to build natural gas-fired power plants. “South Africa gets 77% of its energy needs from coal right now,” Shapiro said. “If you look at the most recent South African Integrated Resource Plan [IRP], it’s clear that nuclear is a small part of a more general attempt to reduce reliance on coal and fossil fuels, and embrace solar, wind, and hydropower. South Africa substituting some nuclear so it can burn less coal is progress from an environmental perspective.”

Mantashe, in a May 7 address to South Africa’s Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources and Energy, said his agency is preparing its nuclear power plan as mandated by the country’s 2019 IRP. Mantashe said his department would consider all options for nuclear power, including projects designed around SMRs. He also said the government is considering replacing the SAFARI-1 research reactor with a multi-purpose reactor. SAFARI-1, which was commissioned in 1965, is a 20-MW light water-cooled, beryllium reflected, pool-type research reactor, initially used for high-level nuclear physics research programs. The reactor is owned and operated by South African Nuclear Energy Corp. at the company’s facility in Pelindaba.

“Small modular reactors make more sense for South Africa, especially considering they are just looking for 2.5 GW of power from nuclear,” Shapiro said. “That’s one of the reasons the U.S. or South Korea might actually have an ace in the hole here. NuScale Power in the U.S. and SMART Power Company in South Korea are both at the cutting edge of SMRs. I would be surprised if South Africa didn’t pursue SMRs considering the energy minister specifically said South Africa was looking to develop modular nuclear stations and cost is the primary concern for the South African government. The bigger question to me is whether South Africa actually goes through with nuclear at all. I am not convinced South Africa can absorb the cost even if it does go the SMR route. If South Africa does go forward, SMRs are the logical way to proceed.” Mantashe’s agency also is developing an oversight plan for a program to enable Koeberg’s two reactors, which generate about 5% of the country’s electricity, to continue operating until at least 2044.

NIASA has noted that SMRs could be a more cost-effective way for South Africa to achieve its nuclear power goal. “The small units are also quite flexible in terms of location,” the agency said in a recent presentation. “Instead of investing in huge transmission lines where they do not already exist, these units can be sited as close to the load centers as possible. They can also be located inland as they typically require much reduced cooling water. In the rest of the continent where the transmission infrastructure is limited or the demand is currently limited, the deployment of the SMRs close to load centers such as cities and mines, becomes key. South Africa can become a hub of the nuclear supply chain worldwide, in much the same way as in the automotive and aerospace industries.”

The group said that SMRs located in coastal areas, and using high-temperature reactors (HTRs), also could be used for water desalination. Such a design is part of a demonstration project in China, with a reactor known as the HTR-PM, a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor. The HTR-PM differs from currently deployed water-cooled designs; the HTR-PM is cooled by helium and can reach temperatures as high as 750C.

Kejian Zhang, chairman of the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA), speaking at the International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power in Vienna, Austria, in October 2019, said, “The HTGR demonstration project with fourth-generation technology has made steady progress, and this reactor will be capable of hydrolytic hydrogen production and high temperature process heat. We have also recently completed the preliminary design of a pool-type, low-temperature heat reactor, the DHR-400, which may be used for district heating.”

2. The Akademik Lomonosov, a first-of-a-kind floating nuclear power plant, was connected to the power grid in Russia in December 2019. The barge is named after a famous academician, Mikhail Lomonosov. Courtesy: Rosatom

Collyer said Rosatom would be ready to supply SMRs. “We have made a real breakthrough in the small modular reactor. Last December, our first-of-a-kind floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov [Figure 2] was connected to the grid in Chukotka, the Russian Far East. Our next priority is an onshore SMR NPP to be built in Russia by 2027. Thus, our versatile flagship SMR design—RITM-200—of 50-MWe capacity will have three key applications: onshore SMR-based plants, floating NPPs, and new icebreakers, which we are currently building for the Northern Sea route. By doing so we’ll secure enough demand to manufacture SMRs in series, which would drive down costs and lead times.”

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).

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