Ageneration of small-sized nuclear plants will revive Africa and give it all the energy it needs. This is the solution of nuclear physicist Kelvin Kemm. He is the CEO of Nuclear Africa and an old hand in the energy game.
“Three quarters of African countries can become nuclear countries within the next half a dozen years. I would advise they do it,” says Kemm.
They call them high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGR); a generation IV reactor that uses helium instead of water. It means that nuclear can produce energy without the need for large amounts of water to cool uranium pebble beds.
“Nuclear is the cleanest, safest and most reliable form of electricity. This is proven… work done at North West University has shown that nuclear power is cheaper than coal in South Africa, if you look at the lifetime cycle and you apply the same interest rates. What tends to happen is that in loans for coal you get a certain interest rate and then suddenly when you get a load for nuclear they up it, because suddenly it’s nuclear and it’s more risky. It isn’t more risky.”
Unlike South Africa’s 2,000MW-Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant, which was completed 30 years ago, the HTGR can be built a lot smaller at 100MW, according to Kemm.
“I am not advocating that a small African country tries to embark on a massive project, because those need to be on the coastline or on the side of very large lakes to utilize the water for cooling,” he says.
Nuclear projects loom large for South Africa. The government is at an advanced stage in its plans to build at least three plants that will produce 9,600MW by 2023.
“To my mind that’s not enough. We should be looking at 12,500MW,” says Kemm.
He believes that the waste produced by the plants is in safe hands.
“It is time for people to think and not get swept into the emotion in the press. The waste problem is not a technological problem, it is a public relations problem. The technical problem is solved. The public hasn’t been solved.”
Low and intermediate level waste from Koeberg – the gloves, paper or anything else that goes into a nuclear zone – is transported by road in steel and concrete containers to a remote disposal site at Vaalputs, 600 kilometers away in the Kalahari Desert.
High-level waste is stored on site in special pools equipped with high-density racking.
“High-level waste is spent fuel. They are balls, with uranium, that can kill in one minute. All the high-level waste that has come out of Koeberg for 30 years is still on the site. There is no legally determined thing to do with it. Only two countries in the world have a permanent plan. That is Sweden and Finland. They both dig underground tunnels, in very wet conditions, pump all the water out. Put in copper cylinders that are about a meter diameter and slide the fuel in and weld the cylinders shut. [They then] slide these cocoons down the tunnel. When the tunnel is full, they release the pumps and move up a level.”
“Their solution is to bury it in water logged tunnels. I would like to see South Africa be the first country to come up with a dry storage solution. You can very easily. South Africans are the best hole diggers in the world with a hundred years of mining to draw on.”
“Sometimes there is this offensive element where overseas people say, ‘they are only a country in Africa with African type standards and these are the same people that have never been here. How can they expect to run nuclear?’”
Kemm answers there is nothing in a reactor that South African scientists do not understand. After all, they’ve run a nuclear power station for 30 years without a hitch.