…but runs into unexpected criticism
Ghana is looking to have a nuclear power plant up and running by 2029, as government seeks to make this source of energy a major contributor to the country’s energy mix in order to avert energy crises in the future. Unsurprisingly however government is already running into headwinds as power industry analysts and environmentalists have begun protesting the move which is coming at a time that countries around the world are committing to a global energy transition away from power sources that are unclean, towards green, renewable, sources of energy such as solar and wind driven power plants.
Undaunted by this however, government has set up a Nuclear Regulatory Authority to Implement what it has dubbed the Nuclear Power Programme, NPP.
According to senior government officials, the country has already achieved all 19 infrastructural requirements for the commencement of an NPP. This however is just the first of three stages insisted on by the International Atomic Energy Agency, (IAEA) before it can give approval for the development of the requisite infrastructure for a nuclear power plant.
So far, the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission has been spearheading the initiative although the mantle will be shifted to the newly established regulatory authority when it is staffed, adequately resourced and is thus able to actually begin work.
It is possible to derive as much as 1,300 megawatts of power from a nuclear power plant, which is close to one third of Ghana’s entire current reliable power generation capacity.
However opposition to the initiative is rising and some of it is coming from unexpected sources.
To be sure, environmentalists were sure to oppose the initiative right from the start. Nuclear energy can generate accidents that have disastrous consequences for the environment when they happen, and even when they do not the generation of radiation is never a good thing.
Critics readily point to the catastrophic Chernobyl power station explosion in Ukraine in 1986 and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi plant disaster in Japan as examples of what can go wrong. Indeed even the United States, with its much vaunted technological superiority, had a close call with its Three Mile Island near reactor meltdown. Critics of the country’s nuclear power ambitions also point to Ghana’s lack of technological capacity as a further risk since it would inhibit the emergency response efforts in the event of such an accident.
On the other hand though, proponents of Ghana’s nuclear power plants point to the statistical data and point out that the likelihood of a plant accident is almost insignificantly low as long as the safety protocols are closely followed. As one government official involved in the programme puts it: “Aeroplane accidents sometimes occur and when they do they are usually much worse than road accidents with regards to fatalities and injuries. But they are so few and far in-between in relation to the volume of traffic they carry that nobody thinks of stopping the usage of aircraft as a means of transport.”
But even the economics of government’s nuclear power plants have become the object of criticism too, and it appears that this has taken it by surprise.
In a recent public statement the highly respected Institute for Energy Security (IES) asserted that government’s plans are “wasteful and ill-advised.” It notes that Ghana is seeking to adopt nuclear power at a time when many countries around the world, including Germany, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Greece and Italy have either shut down or are in the process of pulling the plugs off nuclear plants because of “complicated” relationships with nuclear power.
The IES sees the push for nuclear power as backward, given that times have changed to favour solar and wind energies, instead of nuclear power, based on economics, safety and security risks, and investment hurdles. It asserts that government’s claim that the establishment of a nuclear plant will guarantee the provision of regular and cheap power is “flawed” and it “does not reflect changes in the global power space.”
Claims the IES position paper: “Data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard have revealed that generating electricity from wind and solar is more economical than nuclear. Trend analysis based on Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) between 2010 and 2019 has shown that new unsubsidized wind and solar power are cheaper than some already running resources like coal, nuclear and some gas.”
It then quotes actual costs to back this assertion, noting that between 2020 and 2019, the cost per megawatt hour of nuclear power has risen by 61 percent while utility scale solar power has fallen by approximately 84 percent over the same period.
“The dramatic historical LCOE decline of utility scale solar PV and wind is in light of material declines in the pricing of system components (turbines, panels, inverters etc) and improvements in efficiency among other factors” says the report, when then goes on to defend renewable energy sources against the accusation that they are not reliable for consistent power generation since they are dependent on the vagaries of the weather.
“One other concern about renewables has been the variable nature of these energy sources, particularly wind and solar. However research has proven that it is feasible today to have an all-renewable electrical grid. The bit about renewable energy’s intermittency and dispatchability have been solved, with the introduction of diverse forms of energy storage such as batteries, pump storages and chemical technologies like hydrogen. As a result wind and solar have become highly dispatchable with storage making it a base load source of energy.”
The IES also raises another crucial issue, indeed one which raises doubts as to Ghana’s ability to meet its 2029 timeline for establishing its first nuclear power plant.
Asserts the IES: “A nuclear power plant may take nearly 69 months to complete. Construction delays are a big factor behind the rising cost of nuclear power. The 2017 World Nuclear Industry Status Report had it that of the 53 reactors under construction by mid 2017, 37 were behind schedule; that 8 of those projects had been in progress for a decade or more, and 3 of those had been under construction for more than 30 years.
“Additionally the hurdles to investment in new nuclear projects in even advanced economies are daunting. Securing investment in new nuclear plants now requires more intrusive policy intervention given the very high cost of projects and unfavourable recent experiences in some countries.”
The long gestation period coupled with the relatively high cost of capital available to Ghana would make a nuclear power plant all the more expensive.
None of this is discouraging government from its chosen plant though. The strategy here though appears to be as much politically driven as by technological or economic consideration; simply put, the incumbent administration wants to execute a project that will in one swoop provide all the power needed for Ghana’s ongoing industrialization, thus enabling it to deservedly take all the credit for the outcome. This is seen as a better political alternative to simply providing the policy framework for highly fragmented power plants using renewable feedstock, installed and run by private enterprise.
Government officials though describe such reasoning as uncharitable at best. They insist that nuclear power has been decided upon because it is the best alternative for generating the quantum of power that Ghana will be needing a decade from now.
Whether or not this is indeed the case, Ghana is now on course towards becoming the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to use nuclear power.