Ghana Is Planning Its First Nuclear Energy Plant - What's Behind the Decision

analysis

Ghana is considering bids from five companies for the construction of what would be its first nuclear power plant. The companies are: France's EDF, US-based NuScale Power and Regnum Technology Group; China National Nuclear Corporation; South Korea's Kepco and its subsidiary Korea Hydro Nuclear Power Corporation; and Russia's Rosatom. The Conversation Africa's Godfred Akoto Boafo interviewed Seth Kofi Debrah, director, Nuclear Power Institute, Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, on the pros and cons of adding nuclear power to the country's power mix, and why Ghana needs to diversify and identify new energy sources.

What makes the nuclear option attractive to Ghana?

The country's industrialisation ambitions, fuel constraints, limited resources, climate conditions and international commitments to climate change mitigation are among the factors driving Ghana to include nuclear power in the energy mix.

Nuclear power is available all year round, making it reliable. The nuclear power plant is expected to operate as a baseload plant (the production facility used to meet some or all of an area's continuous energy demand), with a capacity factor of about 92%. A conventional nuclear power plant typically operates for 92% of a calendar year as compared to 54% for natural gas power plants, 24% for solar and 34% for wind power plants.

Demand for electricity is growing across the nation. Currently, 84% of the population have access to electricity but may not be connected to the electrical grid. This means the power is available in their area but they may be unconnected due to personal circumstances.

Electricity demand is expected to grow rapidly on the back of electrification projects planned by successive governments, like the rural electrification project (which aims at supplying electricity to all communities with a population of 500 or greater) and industrialisation initiatives (such as developing the manufacturing, alumina and iron industries).

Another reason for choosing nuclear power is that Ghana sees it as a way of supporting its industrial ambitions in the sub-region.

For example, Ghana aims to become a net exporter of electricity in the region through the West African Power Pool, a specialised agency of the Economic Community of West African States. It covers 14 of the 15 Ecowas countries and is intended to supply them with reliable energy at a competitive cost.

According to the World Bank, the average electrification rate in west Africa is about 42%, which means that almost half of the region's population has no access to electricity. Ghana has an 84% electrification rate.

Ghana believes nuclear power can help it achieve its industrial ambitions while fighting climate change.

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Ghana has an international obligation to reduce greenhouse gas. Nuclear power does not produce any of the greenhouse gases.

Ghana's electricity sector is dominated by thermal plants that use natural gas - a fossil fuel. Fossil thermal plants make up 64% of the current energy mix. This is an over-dependence on a single fuel source. Natural gas has competing uses in different sectors, so there are frequent fuel shortages. And the price of natural gas is set by international markets, which leads to price volatility.

Ghana has its own source of natural gas. But these reserves are expected to start declining by 2028.

How dependable is the country's current energy mix?

Ghana's current energy mix is made up of 1,584MW installed capacity of hydro, 3,758MW of thermal power plants (mostly powered by natural gas) and 112MW of solar generation. But the dependable capacity (the total amount of electricity that the facility can produce and deliver to the power grid) of renewables is non-existent since the source of their power generation is variable.

The dependable capacity of the energy mix of a country matters a great deal. The energy mix must have strong baseload capacity (the minimum amount of electric power needed to be supplied to the electrical grid at any given time) before renewables are considered, to ensure reliability.

No industralised nation developed its economy based on variable generation of electricity. They needed a reliable backbone that could be depended on at all times. European countries used natural gas, coal, hydro or nuclear as their baseload capacity and added on variable renewables.

If Ghana wants to exploit its natural resources and become an industrial giant, it needs sustainable, reliable and affordable baseload electricity. That can be found in a source like nuclear.

Read more: Climate change will affect hydropower -- African countries must be prepared

What's the government's case for nuclear?

Ghana doesn't have many other energy options. It has good sources of hydro but most have already been exploited.

Potential small dams are being affected by climate change or variability and illegal mining. And the economic justification for more small hydro plants is in doubt.

Ghana started its nuclear power journey as far back as the early 1960s but the idea was never realised. The nuclear power programme was restarted in 2007 under former president John Agyekum Kufuor. The programme has followed the International Atomic Energy Agency's three-phase approach. Ghana is now at phase 2: vendor selection and site preparation.

The plant, which is expected to be constructed along the coast of the country, is planned to come online in early 2030.

Read more: Ghana's electricity crisis is holding the country back - how it got here

Given Ghana's financial constraints, is nuclear power a good idea?

Nuclear power plants have proven to be among the cheapest sources of electricity around the world. Even though nuclear has a huge upfront financial burden, its long lifespan (over 60 years) and low running cost makes it one of the cheapest baseload sources of electricity.

Around the world, advanced countries seek financial support for their nuclear projects. There are various models to finance nuclear power plant procurement, including the option of a public private partnership.

How about nuclear waste and the cost of dealing with it?

Ghana already operates one of the few radioactive waste storage facilities in Africa. This means that when Ghana builds a nuclear power plant it will already have capacity in nuclear waste management.

Radioactive waste management, which deals with nuclear waste, is an issue that needs to be addressed in the early stages of planning a nuclear plant. This is evident in the International Atomic Energy Agency milestone approach which most countries follow to develop a nuclear programme. It shows all the 19 infrastructure issues that need to be addressed throughout the three-phased approach.

It is the only power plant that is responsible in dealing with its waste after its lifetime. In effect, it is the only power plan that plans and pays for its waste management during operation and post operation with dedicated funds for waste management.

The costs of managing nuclear waste and the nuclear power plant's decommissioning at the end of its operating life are included in the nuclear power plant tariff. This is a safety requirement as enshrined in the International Atomic Energy Agency safety standards. Furthermore, the country of origin has strict regulations about decommissioning which have to be adhered to by nuclear power plant owners.

One of the major concerns by the public is the treatment or storage of the high level spent fuel that is sometimes referred to as "waste". High level spent fuel is the fuel that has been used up through irradiation. These used fuels usually have over 90% usable fuel that can be re-used through reprocessing.

Seth Kofi Debrah, Professor, School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences, University of Ghana

AllAfrica publishes around 500 reports a day from more than 100 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.