SA's nuclear reactor at Pelindaba, near Pretoria. Picture: NECSA
SA's nuclear reactor at Pelindaba, near Pretoria. Picture: NECSA

Harnessing the direct forces of nature is how we humans became the most widely spread and dominant species. That is until such forces were not enough.

Power from oil and coal enabled the first Industrial Revolution and laid the foundation and development of today’s most affluent and influential regions. Two hundred and fifty years later, the consequential cost to our environment as a result of burning these fossil fuels is one we can no longer afford to ignore.

Africa’s rate of development, industrial ambitions and population growth exist alongside a disabling electrification rate of only 43%, of which, according to the IMF, 79% is generated from fossil fuels. Furthermore, those who do have electricity pay almost twice as much as consumers elsewhere in the world.

Universal access to affordable and reliable electricity is fundamental to the health, education and economic wellbeing of every nation, and even more so today as we expedite recovery from the economic impact of Covid-19. Meeting this growing demand using fossil fuels such as coal would have severe consequences not only for Africa’s fragile environment but for the planet as a whole.

Sun and wind, nature’s most generous forces, are an essential component of the low-carbon energy mix and more affordable than ever. However, because the wind does not always blow and the sun always shine, investments are required in energy storage or traditional power generation systems to mitigate the intermittency of supply. The transmission and distribution infrastructure also requires bespoke measures to respond to such variability. These additional costs are often not factored into the price-per-kilowatt-hour estimations we see communicated today.

Reliable, energy-dense, continuous power traditionally derived from fossil fuels cannot be substituted solely by solar or wind. It can, however, be sourced from modern nuclear energy. Nuclear energy can underpin decarbonised energy systems, provide constant power, handle peak demand and lead to energy grid stability.

African nations recognise the potential of modern nuclear power within the clean energy mix. However, it takes 10 years and several billions of dollars to commission a large-scale nuclear power plant. Also, only a few African countries can meet the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirement, which dictates a network capacity of 10,000MW for every 1,000MW generated from nuclear energy.

Instead, we can consider a smaller, scalable and modular power station approach using small nuclear reactors born of proven and derisked technologies from more than 400 large reactors across the world.

Supported by the UK government, Rolls-Royce is leading a consortium of world-class UK companies to create an affordable compact nuclear power station solution. Each module can provide 440MW of stable and reliable clean power. That is equivalent to 150 onshore wind turbines, enough to power 450,000 homes, yet built on a site smaller than two football pitches.

The design is predicated on an integrated approach at the power system level, designed around the principles of reducing capital, time to build and removing risk. The modular, self-contained approach, using standardised components, provides a predictable programme that targets a total construction time of four years from the first concrete pour to commission, and is designed to generate low-carbon power for 60 years. For countries such as SA, it is worth noting that the design features a unique foundation that neutralises local seismic conditions.

The lifespan of these compact nuclear power stations is considered within the design phase to simplify and expedite the process of “end-of-life decommissioning” after the 60 years of operation.

Cost certainty is hard to achieve with any impactful infrastructure and power project. However, the modular and standardised method of construction of the UK’s compact nuclear power station design compels private investors, development finance institutions and governments alike. There is also the exciting potential for alternative revenue streams from by-products, such as the production of much needed sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen and even the desalination of seawater, which would typically require enormous power input.

The UK is committed to mobilising investment to transform and expedite global industrial development through zero-carbon technologies, and will do this through companies such as Rolls-Royce, a pioneer in sustainable, low-carbon power.

With debt levels that would give many of us sleepless nights, Africa cannot afford to take risks; transparently structured partnerships and trustworthy governance are critical to every decision we make. As we heard at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January, the UK government is committed to being the top Group of Seven (G7) investor in Africa. Importantly, part of this strengthening partnership will come from British businesses such as Rolls-Royce, which is keen to collaborate with African counterparts to innovate equitable solutions that can go on to benefit the whole world, while supporting African sovereignty through localisation and job creation.

Each country across Africa has its unique geography and potential for energy harnessed from nature, whether it is solar, wind, hydro or geothermal. Nevertheless, what every nation has in common is a level of electrical deficit that demands not one solution but a harmonious, balanced energy mix within which we can include the scalable, clean, continuous and affordable electricity derived from smaller, compact nuclear power stations. The continent can then not only meet the growing power demand but thrive — environmentally, economically and socially.

• Woods is director of nuclear strategy & government relations at Rolls-Royce.

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