Electricity in the realm of the Lion King

“One cannot escape the glaring reality that you get solar only part of the day, and get zero at night. You also get next-to-nothing when it rains, or when daytimes are cloudy. Dust on the solar panels knocks out a substantial portion of their electrical output.”
– Dr Kelvin Kemm

“I have said many times that African countries are not going to let anyone – including UN, EU, American or other eco-imperialists – tell them they must stop trying to take their rightful, God-given places among Earth’s healthy and prosperous people,” says Pauyl Driessen. “They are not going to let anyone tell them they will be “allowed” to improve their health and living standards only at the margins, only to levels achievable with wind, solar and cow dung power. They are not going to stop using fossil fuels or nuclear power to reach their goals. Nor should they.

“In this article, nuclear physicist Dr. Kelvin Kemm explains clearly and persuasively why wind, solar and hydroelectric power – and even coal and natural gas – are not the best alternatives for most African countries. His knowledge and experience have convinced him that the best option for most African nations is nuclear power: specifically small Pebble Bed Modular Reactors. They are safe and comparatively inexpensive. They can generate enough electricity for small to moderately sized communities. And multiple PBMRs can be added to initial reactors as desired or needed to meet expanding power needs.”


Electricity in the realm of the Lion King

Small Modular Reactors, especially Pebble Bed Modular Reactors, are Africa’s best future

Dr. Kelvin Kemm

Hydro power is a good way to generate electricity. In most political circles, it is considered environment-friendly because it does not produce carbon dioxide, and it is not complicated. Norway has extensive hydro and can claim to have very green energy, which Norwegians do.

Hydro is wonderful, in fact – if you have the water. Norway’s hydro dams are constructed between rather vertical rock walls, which form the famous Norwegian fjords and tower above Norwegian valleys. Many of these geological formations are permanently topped with ice and snow, which constantly melts into reservoirs behind the dams, and is supplemented by regular rainfall, keeping water supplies plentiful and the water height and volume essentially constant.

Africa is different, and its electricity supply challenges are quite monumental. The continent is larger than the USA, China, India and Europe combined. The standard common flat map projection is based on Europe for historical reasons, and does not adequately portray the true size of Africa.

Many African countries have very little electricity, and again a major challenge is their size. South Africa alone is the size of all Western Europe. The distance from its capital city Pretoria to its southernmost city Cape Town is equal to that from Rome to London, or New York to Milwaukee.

Many African countries are less than 20% electrified, some only 10% electrified. Some 700 million Africans still have no electricity or have it only a few hours a week, at totally unpredictable times.  Many African countries also rely heavily on hydro power; in fact quite a few are 100% hydro. That is environmentally and politically great, except for those who hate damming rivers. But there is a snag.

African hydroelectric systems tend to involve very wide, flat expanses of water, and many African countries are rather dry. So evaporation off their reservoir surfaces is dramatic. The only way their reservoirs are filled is from periodic rainfall, not constant ice and snow runoff. Rainfall can be really “periodic,” and water levels can fall quickly when prolonged drought conditions set in.

In South Africa, large dams are built to accommodate droughts of up to five years. A year ago a number of South African dams were down to 15% of capacity. Cape Town started preparing for a drinking water emergency. Thankfully enough rains came just in time to stave off real trouble.

In South Africa the issue involved drinking water, more than electricity, because South Africa has a relatively small percentage of hydro-power. But as the moment, Zimbabwe’s large Kariba Dam is only 25% full and it is very important for Zimbabwean electricity production. They are very worried.

Many African leaders have very wisely said they cannot possibly continue to base 21st Century economies on African hydro-power. Mother Nature cannot be cajoled into arranging for more rain.

Another problem with expanding African hydro-power is that all the cheapest sites were used first. For hydro, one has to build dams where it is possible to dam a geological feature to create the dam. Due to Africa’s size, each potential new site is very much further away from consumers. Many also provide major engineering challenges, due to the lack of Norwegian-style fjord rock walls.

Coal. South Africa is blessed with huge quantities of coal, and is a major coal exporter. Coal moves continuously by rail to a port where it is loaded onto ships by automatic systems that pick entire railway trucks up and tip them upside-down. Most African countries, however, have no coal, oil or natural gas. Turning them from 20% electrified to, say, 75% electrified is extremely challenging.

The energy minister of a landlocked African country recently told me that, if they imported coal from South Africa, the only way to do it would be by overland rail, across vast distances. Making matters even worse, the train would have to cross four international borders. Those distances and political risks make coal imports out of the question. The same arguments apply to oil and gas imports through incredibly long pipelines, or by road tankers. The geographical and political risks are just too great.

Solar. Some enthusiasts loudly advocate solar and wind power, noting that much of Africa has good conditions for solar power. However, one still cannot escape the glaring reality that you get solar only part of the day, and get zero at night. You also get next-to-nothing when it rains, or when daytimes are cloudy. Dust on the solar panels knocks out a substantial portion of their electrical output. An enthusiastic European vendor may advise you to just wash the panels regularly. Europeans use automatic water washers. Simple! But Africa has no water to spray daily onto solar panels.

Much of Africa is also prone to violent storms. Hail can sweep over an area, or great winds can blow for several hours. Violent African storms usually last only a very short time, but time enough to wipe out, or badly damage, a huge array of solar panels.

There are undoubtedly special applications for solar: in remote areas or to provide power to users who only need it during lunchtime. But powering a national solar grid to reach 75% of your people is another story, and producing one megawatt of solar power requires an area the size of a football field.

Wind power faces similar issues. Wind turbines have to be placed where there is sufficient wind. That can be far from the consumer. Wind is intermittent and seasonal. Handling intermittent power on a grid that needs stable power is a constant control nightmare. Wind enthusiasts say, if you put in enough turbines, thousands of them, the wind is always blowing somewhere. That’s not always true.

Meteorological data show that wind incidence patterns tend to vary greatly over very large areas thousands of kilometres across, covering multiple countries. Low wind over the whole area is not only possible, but likely. Turbines kill birds and bats, by the thousands. With both wind and solar, one gets locked into foreign suppliers for raw materials, finished products and much of the maintenance.

Nuclear power is the world’s future. Nuclear has a few inherent disadvantages. It is without doubt the cleanest, greenest and safest form of power production. Contrary to what you may have heard about the Fukushima nuclear plant that was hit by the 2011 tsunami, not one single person was killed or injured by nuclear radiation. Not one. Also, no private property was harmed by radiation.

Another major advantage of nuclear power is that it uses so little fuel. The total annual fuel usage of even a large nuclear plant can be carried in a couple of trucks. It can be airlifted-in, if need be. There is no need for long supply lines, which can be prone to weather or political disruptions. Nuclear reactors are refuelled only every 18 months.

Critics say nuclear is expensive. It’s not if you look at the total life cycle. A modern reactor is designed to last for 60 years and will probably last for 80 – versus 15-20 for wind turbines and solar panels. While money must be spent upfront in construction, benefits are reaped over many decades. What is required is an innovative approach to the project-cycle funding. Right now in South Africa, nuclear-generated electricity is the cheapest by far. The current nuclear plant, Koeberg, is over 30 years old and is now running very profitably, since the construction costs have been paid off.

Another plus is that the price of uranium is almost irrelevant. Such a little amount of uranium is used in a nuclear plant that even if the international uranium price were to double, it would make extremely little difference to the annual fuel bill. It is nothing like a variation in coal or oil prices.

Large-scale nuclear needs water cooling, which means plants must be built on a coastline or on a large inland water source. But big nuclear is probably too large for many nations to start with. There is a second solution: SMR-class Small Modular Reactors that are currently being developed. South Africa’s SMR is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor – and a small PBMR can be only 10% the size of a large traditional reactor. A PBMR does not need large water cooling, so you can place it anywhere.

In fact, close to the point of consumption is no problem. “Modular” means that you can add extra reactors to the initial system, as you wish or need, when you wish or need. It’s something like adding extra locomotives to a large train, all controlled by one driver.

PBMRs are also considerably cheaper than large reactors. So, a very viable answer for any African country is to plan for PBMR nuclear systems. One PBMR reactor will produce 100 to 200 Megawatts, depending on its design. As the country requires more power, it simply installs more PMBRs.

An important consideration with nuclear power in Africa is for countries to work together. Africa needs a nuclear network for operations, training and general nuclear development. In the spirit of Fourth Industrial Revolution thinking, now is the time to plan an African nuclear network. Thankfully a number of African countries have already launched that process.

Dr Kelvin Kemm of Pretoria, South Africa is a nuclear physicist, CEO of the project management company Nuclear Africa (Pty) Ltd, and consultant on strategic development of various industries.

13 thoughts on “Electricity in the realm of the Lion King”

  1. Nuclear power assumes we no longer have wars. In wars dams were destroyed, oil tankers were sunk, refineries were bombed but the environment recovered. Not so when a nuclear plant is bombed – the area can become invisibly deadly for a long time and some of the effects of radiation on humans and animals can be horrible. If we were approaching the elimination of wars then nuclear power would be very attractive, but the headlines do not indicate that will happen in the near term. Until then nuclear facilities present the greatest long term threat to to all of us.

  2. “Nuclear power is the world’s future. Nuclear has a few inherent disadvantages. It is without doubt the cleanest, greenest and safest form of power production. Contrary to what you may have heard about the Fukushima nuclear plant that was hit by the 2011 tsunami, not one single person was killed or injured by nuclear radiation. Not one. Also, no private property was harmed by radiation.”

    The above statements are utterly false. Please have died due to increased rates of cancer caused by the leaked radiation, and people’s homes have been rendered uninhabitable by the radiation spewed out of Fukushima. The harmful radioactive material has a lifespan of tens of thousands of years. Look at the examples of Chernobyl and Fukushima to get a ‘taste’ of how ‘safe’ nuclear power really is. In no other endeavor of man is there no possible solution when an accident occurs.

    • GP, I have to agree with your concerns about the placement of Nuclear Reactors in Africa. Given the corruption there I would be concerned about the security of both the fuel and the spent fuel. Most of the accident to date have been as a result of inherent design logic fails and poor operation. Fukishima exposed a fundamental flaw in the power plant design. That is why Germany closed their similar plants. Unfortunately, they also closed ones without the problem. I do not know how you can overrule faulty decisions with design and operation. The US had extensive safety reviews with all plants. Still, TMI happened.

    • Would you like to tell us why you think that this website will be shut down in a year or less?
      If the dems win the election next year, I could see them TRYING to shut down opposing views but, I dont think they could silence us.

      • Great idea. We should prepare in case they will shut down
        this website. Will should stay in touch and keep exchanging
        info so will know what’s REALLY happening around the World. I would also like to know WHY and based on what Win made his prediction. I hope it is not just meanness.
        I might deceiving myself, but I still believe in human kindness.

  3. Ok, Robert, how about Fuk-us-hima, lol?

    You know I gotta push the envelope once in awhile, it’s my unruly Celtic nature!

    I hope Win is wrong and this website will still be here a year from now. But this deal in Saudi does not bode well. Remember what I said about communications and transportation. THEY will take control of both in this country without a shot being fired.

    The screws are tightening.

    God bless you and yours, and good luck when the SHTF.


  4. There is a side-effect of wind farms and solar farms: The sterilization of mineral deposits. I have knowledge of such.

    Dr. Kemm may remember a debate in the GEOBULLETIN (quarterly magazine of the Geological Society of South Africa/GSSA) during 2012. It was sparked off in the December 2011 issue by one Rose Prevec under the title, “Is their room for deniers in the climate debate”, a verbal attack on Dr. Kemm. There were two responses in the March 2012 issue, one by me and the other by the author of a geological text book in my technical library, both refuting Me. Prevecs arguments. In the June 2012 issue she wrote off our factual arguments as ‘denialist rhetoric’, and called on the GSSA to take a stance in support of AGW. This was overwhelmingly rejected in subsequent letters by members to Geobulletin.

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