Nuclear to the rescue Electricity is the key to a healthier, more prosperous Third World
Over 2 billion people around the world still do not have electricity. Largely as a result, their lives are marked by poverty, pollution, disease and premature death. But a promising new technology – a nuclear power plant design developed in South Africa – could begin to change all that.
“The only good thing about the good old days is that they’re gone.” My grandmother’s wisdom came from experience. As a teenager in late nineteenth century Wisconsin, she had cleared tons of rocks from fields, toiled on the family farm, and hauled countless buckets of water. If she had to select just one modern technology, she said, she’d choose running water. But electricity was a close second.
No wonder. Without electricity, modern life reverts to her childhood: no lights, refrigeration, heating, air-conditioning, radio, television, computers, safe running water or mechanized equipment for homes, schools, shops, hospitals, offices and factories.
Incredibly, this is what life is like every day for 2 billion people in developing countries. Viewed at night from outer space, Africa really is the Dark Continent: only 10% of its 700 million people regularly have electricity. While 75% of South Africa is now fully electrified, only 5% of Malawi, Mozambique and other countries are so fortunate. Much of poor and rural Asia and Latin America faces a similar predicament.
Instead of rolling blackouts, neighborhoods have rolling power. “In the western part of my country, families get electricity maybe three hours every two weeks,” says Pastor Abdul Sesay, a Sierra Leone native who now resides in Maryland. “Eastern communities get it maybe once a month!”
Instead of turning on a light or stove, millions of women and children spend their days gathering wood, grass and dung, to burn in primitive hearths for cooking and heating. Instead of turning a faucet, they spend hours carrying water from distant lakes and rivers that are often contaminated with bacteria.
Pollution from their fires causes 4 million deaths a year from lung infections. Tainted water and spoiled food cause intestinal diseases that kill another 2 million annually. Clinics and hospitals lack modern equipment, reliable refrigeration and clean tap water, exacerbating health problems that keep millions out of work for extended periods. The dearth of electricity also means minimal manufacturing and commerce – and impoverished countries forever dependent on foreign aid.
Abundant, reliable, affordable electricity is a critical priority for developing nations. Hydroelectric projects like Bujagali (Uganda), Narmada (India) and Three Gorges (China) offer one solution; coal-fired power plants another. They aren’t perfect ecologically, but neither are wind turbines, which require extensive acreage, kill birds, and provide inadequate amounts of intermittent, expensive electricity that cannot possibly sustain modern societies.
Now a new energy technology is about to make its debut. Designed and built in South Africa, but with suppliers and partners in many other nations, the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) is a revolutionary concept in nuclear power. The 165-megaWatt modules are small and inexpensive enough to provide electrical power for emerging economies, individual cities or large industrial complexes. However, multiple units can be connected and operated from one control room, to meet the needs of large or growing communities.
Process heat from PBMR reactors can also be used directly to desalinate sea water, produce hydrogen from water, turn coal and tar sands into liquid petroleum, and power refineries, chemical plants and tertiary recovery operations at mature oil fields. This could launch new industries and make previously untapped resources economical to produce. (It could also enable the United States to squeeze every possible drop of petroleum from places like Prudhoe Bay and turn the country’s vast coal and oil shale deposits into oil and natural gas, to replace resources it refuses to develop in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Outer Continental Shelf and other areas.)
The fuel comes in the form of baseball-sized graphite balls, each containing sugar-grain-sized particles of uranium encapsulated in high-temperature graphite and ceramic. This makes them easier and safer to handle than conventional fuel rods, says Pretoria-based nuclear physicist and business strategy consultant Dr. Kelvin Kemm. The design also reduces waste disposal problems and the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation. In conventional nuclear plants, fuel rod assemblies are removed long before complete burn-up, to avoid damaging their housings; but pebble fuel balls are burnt to depletion.
Because they are cooled by helium, the modules can be sited anywhere, not just near bodies of water, and the reactors cannot suffer meltdowns. If the chain reaction must be shut down in an emergency, the fuel’s residual decay heat dissipates slowly and naturally.
The ability to locate PBMRs where needed also eliminates the need to construct long, expensive power lines (from distant wind turbine sites, for example). The presence of uranium deposits in South Africa and Uganda adds to the logic of emphasizing the technology in Africa. The simple design permits rapid construction (in about 24 months), and the plants don’t emit carbon dioxide.
PBMR technology could generate millions of jobs in research, design and construction industries – and millions more in industries that will prosper from having plentiful low-cost heat and electricity. It will help save habitats that are now being chopped into firewood – and improve health and living standards for countless families.
“I met a guy living in the bush who got electricity and promptly started making wooden chairs,” Dr. Kemm told me. “Not garden stuff, but perfect Louis XIV chairs, because he could now use electric saws, drills, routers and lathes.” It’s a story that will be repeated all over the world as people gain access to the miracle of electricity.
Not surprisingly, dozens of companies and countries are keenly interested in PBMR technology, and the first pilot plant will go online in 2011. But special interest groups have lined up against it. George Soros’s Open Society Foundation supports anti-nuclear organizations that oppose PBMR. Danish interests see it as undesirable competition for their wind turbine businesses.
Representing the literal and figurative Forces of Darkness, former Earth Island Institute writer Gar Smith asserts that electricity “destroys” traditional cultures. “If there is going to be electricity,” he has said, it should be “decentralized, small and solar-powered.” Africans should have power “where they need it,” actor Ed Begley, Jr. intoned – in the form of little solar panels “on their huts.”
This is unacceptable, says Kenya’s Akenyi Arunga. “Indigenous lifestyles,” she points out, “really mean indigenous poverty, malnutrition, disease and childhood death.”
Poor people everywhere hope these patronizing attitudes will soon be replaced by a recognition that they have an inalienable right to take their place among the Earth’s healthy and prosperous people. My grandmother would certainly agree.